Judge John Neilan has slammed the ACC bank for sending what he described as a “threatening, bully boy letter” to a married couple with two children and said those in debt should not fear coming to court.
His comments offer some hope to couples across Westmeath who are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up payments on family homes because of increased unemployment.
The bank had called in the entire amount due from the young couple, saying they were no longer prepared to wait and would not accept an instalment they offered to make.
When the couple presented documentary evidence of the offer to Mullingar District Court, the judge was strongly critical of the letter which the bank sent to them, describing it as “threatening”, “bully-boy”, and “unacceptable to the court”.
“It is clear to the court that you have made a very strong effort to try and make a contribution to the debt,” he said and acknowledged that “your first priority is to keep a roof over your head and the second is to provide food for your children. I’ll look after the ACC.”
“You have nothing to worry about,” he said. “You’re entitled to post €50 to the ACC and if they reject it, that’s their problem.”
“I am somewhat surprised in one sense and not surprised in another that the ACC have not accepted your genuine offer” he said, adding that it is time financial institutions, whose CEOs receive salaries in the millions to “come to reality”.
He criticised the “arrogance of financial institutions who brought this country to its knees,” and reminded them that it is the taxpayer who is now funding them.
He said one option open to the couple is to inform the bank that the matter is now before court and “the judge says it is within his sole discretion what happens next”.
Judge Neilan indicated an appreciation for the difficulties encountered by people who find themselves in debt and have to appear before a public forum to “bare their soul”.
However he urged that they shouldn’t “be frightened to come before the court and set out their stall,” and pointed out that the Money, Advice and Budgeting Services may be able to offer assistance when preparing a statement of means.
“I’m not suggesting any creditor should walk away from indebtedness, but people should not be running frightened in front of financial institutions.
“If you’re indebted, don’t be afraid to come before the court and set out your stall.”
He emphasised that his critical comments were directed at banks and not at other creditors and he stated that the court will address “people who have brass necks and owe money”.
The case has been put back to November following uncertainty created on foot of a High Court decision that it is unconstitutional to jail those who cannot pay their debts.
“There are steps,” he told the couple. “You’re in the middle and the next step has been to be unconstitutional.”