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FactCheck: Are there really 20,000 possession cases before the courts?

There has been a slowdown in the number of cases being issued, but it is unclear where exactly the situation stands now.

THE GOVERNMENT AND Central Bank have been highlighting in recent years the consistent decrease in the number of mortgage customers in arrears and the number of possession cases being taken against homeowners. 

However, commentators have repeatedly pointed out that, despite the slowdown, there are still thousands – and probably tens of thousands – of people whose possession cases are still before the courts.

The figure most frequently used in relation to ongoing possession cases in the courts is 20,000. Generally, this figure is cited as an estimation, so let’s look at where it came from and the evidence, if any, to back it up.

Claim: There are 20,000 possession cases before the Irish courts.

It is unclear where exactly this figure originated, but it has been used by several commentators and in numerous media reports over the last year.

Just last week, Community Action Network (CAN) released a report about the experiences of people in mortgage distress. In this report, it stated that there are “currently an estimated 20,000 possession cases before the courts”.

Personal insolvency practitioner Mitchell O’Brien also used the figure when he spoke to TheJournal.ie last year, stating that there were “maybe 20,000 households” facing repossession. We asked him about it this week. 

He said he believes the figure may be even higher than 20,000. He pointed out the vast majority of courts figures on possession cases relate to family homes and not buy-to-let properties.

“A secured creditor concerned with a buy-to-let can in most cases appoint a receiver with the power of sale, and avoid the lengthy and costly legal repossession process,” he said. 

Brendan Burgess has questioned the accuracy of the 20,000 possession cases figure several times. He believes the number could be closer to 8,000.

Here’s his own estimation using, purely as an example the list for the Dublin Circuit Court for 9 November:

“Of the 38 cases listed, only three are from 2015 and three more from 2016.  This suggests to me that most of the 2014 and 2015 cases have been closed. 

“So I really don’t know where the figure of 20,000 cases outstanding comes from. I would guess that the correct figures are about:

2014 and earlier: 1,000

2015: 1,000

2016 2,000

2017 3,000 

2018: 1,000 – first six months

Total: 8,000 

“This is a very important figure to know.  If about 20% of court cases started end in orders being granted (we don’t know that figure either), it would tell us that we would expect the 8,000 cases to lead to about 1,600 orders,” he said.

David Hall of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation (IMHO) said neither the Courts Service nor the Central Bank currently holds data on the total number of ongoing possession cases. 

“By design, they haven’t got those figures. They don’t want to terrorise people and if they’re not there you can’t do that, so it’s intentional that there’s not a categorical number. 

But if you think about it, it’s amazing that they don’t have the number of ongoing possession cases. It’s a very simple number. 

Both he and Mitchell O’Brien said whatever the current numbers, they expect this to increase significantly when vulture funds begin pursuing people for the distressed loans they have bought from some of the pillar banks. 

The evidence

When it comes to hard figures, the reality is that this total number of ongoing possession cases is not available. The Courts Service told TheJournal.ie that it does not “collate figures relating to total number of ongoing cases”. 

It does publish figures every year in its annual report for the number of possession cases lodged and resolved in the Circuit Court and High Court the previous year. So we had a look at the publicly available figures on possession cases in those reports, which are from 2014 to 2017. 

Based on those figures, and our calculations, there were 11,157 cases still ongoing at the end of 2017. 

The Central Bank also said it does not have the total figure for active possession cases as its data is mainly based on cases that have concluded. The figures it does have for ‘legal proceedings issued’ each quarter include applications to begin proceedings as well as other activity to continue proceedings to enforce the debt/security.

This explains the disparity between Courts Service figures and Central Bank figures. Although these Central Bank statistics are often cited by commentators when speaking about repossessions, they should not be used as an indication of active cases because each case is essentially counted multiple times. 

So we are left with the 11,157 figure. 

Remember, this does not include any cases before 2014 that are still ongoing and without going through every single possession case in the last ten years, a definite figure on this can not be stated. 

According to Central Bank figures, since the third quarter of 2009, 8,195 primary dwelling house properties have been either repossessed through a court order (2,721), or surrendered voluntarily (5,474). 

Verdict

We rate this claim, made most recently by Community Action Network (and others), as UNPROVEN.

The evidence available is insufficient to support or refute the claim, but it is logically possible.

Update 15/03/19: Since this Factcheck was published, the Central Bank has changed the language it uses in its quarterly statistical bulletins on arrears and repossessions to make it clearer what these figures refer to. The section formerly titled ‘Legal Proceedings and Repossessions’ is now called ‘Legal Activity and Repossessions’. This section also now clarifies that the figures relate both to legal activity to begin repossession proceedings and activity to continue legal proceedings to enforce the debt/security. 

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here

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