149. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality further to Parliamentary Question No. 170 of 1 February 2018, the details of the 10,000 advice and assistance services provided to distressed borrowers up to mid-January 2018 by the Abhaile scheme in terms of court circuits, numbers of vouchers provided to solicitors and the average value of the vouchers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7887/18]
Minister for Justice and Equality (Deputy Charles Flanagan): As the Deputy will be aware, Abhaile is the Government's national Mortgage Arrears Resolution Service. It provides insolvent borrowers who are at risk of losing their home with a range of free expert services and supports, including professional legal and financial advice and assistance, to help them identify and put in place solutions to their arrears, and wherever possible, to remain in their homes.
Up to 19th of January 2018, Abhaile issued 7,983 vouchers for free professional financial advice and assistance from a personal insolvency practitioner, and 2,177 vouchers for free legal advice and assistance from a solicitor. A substantial number of other borrowers were assisted under other free Abhaile services, including those receiving financial advice and assistance from Dedicated Mortgage Arrears Advisers working with MABS (the Money Advice and Budgeting Service), or helped by duty solicitors, or by MABS court mentors, in connection with repossession proceedings.
The legal advice and assistance services provided under Abhaile to distressed borrowers consist of three elements:
- A solicitor consultation service, which provides a single legal advice consultation to provide the borrower with independent legal advice on the borrower’s best options for sustainable resolution of the mortgage arrears on their home;
- A duty solicitor service, which provides advice and assistance at county registrars’ courts to unrepresented borrowers who are defendants in repossession proceedings against their homes;
- A legal aid service for personal insolvency court reviews, which provides legal aid in connection with proceedings under section 115A of the Personal Insolvency Acts (i.e, where a borrower wishes to seek a court review in circumstances where the creditors have rejected a proposal for a PIA).
It is understood that the Deputy’s query relates to the consultation solicitor and duty solicitor services.
The solicitor consultation service
As at 19 January 2018, 2,177 borrowers had been issued legal advice vouchers under Abhaile. This voucher entitles the person to a free legal advice consultation with a solicitor. The service provided by the solicitor entails:
- arranging a consultation with the borrower and taking instructions;
- checking the borrower’s legal position, explaining it clearly to the borrower and answering his or her questions;
- advising the borrower on any related legal complications (for example, where a co-borrower is not cooperating in efforts to resolve the mortgage arrears);
- advising the borrower on any legal aspects of possible solutions, including solutions arising from financial advice and assistance provided under Abhaile;
- if the borrower is facing repossession proceedings, assessing whether the borrower appears to have a valid legal defence to those proceedings;
- explaining how to apply for civil legal aid to defend the proceedings, if the borrower appears to have a defence to repossession satisfying the merits criteria under sections 24 and 28 of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995;
- if the borrower does not have a legal defence, informing the borrower about the Duty Solicitor Service available under Abhaile,
- providing to the borrower, in writing, the legal advice given at the consultation(s), and providing a copy of that written advice to the borrower’s Abhaile financial adviser.
A fixed fee of €250 plus VAT is payable to the solicitor under Abhaile for providing the above service. There is no fee payable by the borrower.
In certain circumstances, the Legal Aid Board may, on application from the solicitor, grant the solicitor authority to continue to provide legal advice to the borrower, in the form of negotiating and concluding a solution with the mortgage lender. In that case the solicitor will also hold a final consultation with the borrower and again confirm that advice in writing. In such circumstances an additional fee of €200+VAT is payable to the solicitor and again there is no fee payable by the borrower.
It should be noted that the solicitor consultation service is an “advice only” service. It does not provide legal aid in connection with court proceedings, and it is not necessary that court proceedings have been issued before a person can avail of the service. For this reason, statistics on this service do not refer to court circuits.
The duty solicitor service
The duty solicitor service provides limited assistance in the County Registrars’ courts to unrepresented defendants facing repossession proceedings against their homes. The service consists of providing advice and assistance to the borrower at the Courthouse, and includes:
- explaining clearly to the borrower their legal position regarding the repossession proceedings;
- answering his or her questions;
- speaking on the borrower’s behalf in Court;
- seeking an adjournment and/or settlement of the proceedings in favour of the borrower.
The Duty Solicitor service does not require a voucher. The borrower does not have to have already seen an Abhaile adviser: it may assist if they have, as the duty solicitor can be provided in advance with a copy of the consultation solicitor's written legal advice. In practice, most borrowers helped by a Duty Solicitor have not previously sought legal advice - however, the Duty Solicitor or the MABS Court Mentor present at court can refer them for further help under Abhaile.
The figures that follow show the number of sittings in each Circuit Court circuit for which a duty solicitor has been, or is scheduled to be, provided, in the period between September 2016 and the end of March 2018 (end of the current Courts term).
|Circuit||No of court dates|
Under Abhaile, a duty solicitor is rostered to attend court on a date when the County Registrar is scheduled to deal with repossession cases, and is then available to assist unrepresented borrowers attending that sitting. The duty solicitor is paid a fixed fee of €250+VAT for attending a half day sitting and €350+VAT for attending a full day sitting, irrespective of the number of borrowers assisted. (The overwhelming majority of duty solicitor services are paid at the half day rate). There is no fee payable by the borrower.
Comprehensive figures are not available for all borrowers helped by Duty Solicitors under Abhaile. However, at least 3,340 unrepresented borrowers have been assisted by duty solicitors at repossession court lists around the country to date.