Legal aid scheme for mortgage arrears welcomed

Legal aid scheme for mortgage arrears welcomed

Legal rights group FLAC has welcomed the new legal support scheme announced by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald for those in mortgage debt.

The scheme, first announced in January 2016, will be run through the Money Advice & Budgeting Service with the Legal Aid Board supplying an external panel of solicitors.

FLAC has long campaigned for the state to provide legal assistance for those in mortgage arrears and said this scheme goes some way towards addressing the gap in legal supports.

Ciarán Finlay, legal & policy officer for FLAC, said: “The planned information campaign around this scheme is a crucial element in the overall rollout. Anecdotally, we are hearing that the rate of appearance of defendant borrowers at repossession proceedings is very low, possibly as low as 10 per cent of those being called to court. It is vital that those in mortgage arrears or at risk of repossession are aware of the new supports which are available.

“Equally, the fact that there is no means test for applicants accessing the solicitor consultation service and the duty solicitor service means the new scheme avoids the pitfalls of the general civil legal aid scheme in excluding many people very much in need of help but who do not meet the strict income criteria.”

However, FLAC said it is not yet clear whether those who are not yet at the repossession stage will qualify for legal assistance from the state, even where an early intervention may increase that person’s chances of maintaining the family home and they cannot by themselves make a legal defence.

Paul Joyce, senior policy analyst for FLAC, queried the end goal of the measure, when even with the support of a lawyer and a reasonable proposal to repay their debt, people facing repossession proceedings who do not have a legal defence to the claim ultimately have the odds stacked against them if their lender is determined to recover property.

Mr Joyce said: “Right now, if the lender rejects the borrower’s repayment proposal, the Circuit Court County Registrar can only delay granting a Possession Order to allow some breathing space, usually through a series of adjournments.

“In our view, if the County Registrar believes the borrower is making a reasonable and sustainable proposal, he or she should be given the power to dismiss the application for a Possession Order.”

FLAC also said the Legal Aid Board must receive adequate additional funding to ensure that it can meet increased demands rather than eat into its existing service budget.

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