Coroner warns financial institutions not to harasss people in debt

South Tipperary’s coroner has warned financial institutions and debt collectors they are breaking the law if they harass a person for debt repayments and has called on them to ensure they have policies in place to prevent their staff harassing under pressure debtors.

South Tipperary’s coroner has warned financial institutions and debt collectors they are breaking the law if they harass a person for debt repayments and has called on them to ensure they have policies in place to prevent their staff harassing under pressure debtors.

Mr Morris has raised the issue in light of the huge increase in the number of suicides in South Tipperary and nationally in the past four years and the fact that some of these suicides were committed by individuals under financial pressure due to the impact of the recession.

There were 18 deaths by suicide in South Tipperary last year, which was double the number of such deaths in the South Riding in 2009.

Mr Morris, who was one of the speakers at a high profile Suicide Awareness meeting in Clonmel last month, said he hadn’t analysed the suicide cases that have come before South Tipperary Coroners’ court in recent years but acknowledged the recession has been a factor in some specific cases.

He believes there is a need to “chip away at the awful ruthless culture” where a “kind of merciless Darwinian approach” is taken to people in financial trouble.

He said he suspects the policies of some financial institutions and debt collection agencies in relation to collecting money owed to them don’t comply with the provisions of the 1997 Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act.

He said the manner in which financial institutions communicated with a debtor could be the last straw for a person under severe financial pressure and lead them to entertain suicidal thoughts.

Under Section 10 of the Act, it is an offence to harass a person by persistently communicating with them by any means including by telephone in such a way that it intentionally or recklessly seriously interferes with their peace and privacy or causes alarm, distress or harm.

And Under Section 11 of the Act, a person who makes a demand for payment of a debt is guilty of an offence if the frequency of their demands is calculated to subject the debtor or a member of their family to alarm, distress or humiliation. They are also committing an offence if they falsely represent that failure to pay the debt will result in criminal proceedings or that they are authorised in some official capacity to enforce payment or utter a document falsely representing to be official.

Mr Morris points out that a summary conviction for breaching Section 10 of the Act carries a fine of up to £1500 (j1913)or up to 12 months jail or both while someone convicted on indictment could get a prison term of up to seven year and a fine.

And a fine of up to £1500 (j1913) can be imposed on a person guilty of a Section 11 offence under the Act.

Mr Morris urged financial institutions and debt collectors to have policies in place to ensure their staff don’t harass debtors and breach the law.

He advised people in financial difficulties to invoke the Act if they feel they are being harassed.

“If a person is being harassed by a financial institution or debt collector they can point out to whoever is directly contacting them that he or she is the offender and they are free to make a complaint to the Gardai,” he explained.

Mr Morris recommended to people in financial difficulties to hire an independent advocate with the necessary skills such as an accountant or solicitor to negotiate with the banks and other creditors on their behalf.

And he urged financial institutions, companies and other agencies collecting debts to deal with these third parties in cases where they are engaged rather than dealing with the individual debtor

He believes such a policy would have a very positive impact in reducing the risk of suicide among people in financial difficulties.

While the recession has added specific stresses to people’s lives, Mr Morris doesn’t believe it is to fully blame for the huge increase in suicide in South Tipperary in the past few years.

“I think it’s more the type of society we are living in. There is a very distorted idea of what success is. I think we have to get away from the concept that the person with money is successful when that person may be living a life of desperation.”

He believes we as a people have lost a lot of our spirituality, which helped provide us with resilience to overcome challenges and tragedies and a real awareness that you were going to know and experience disappointment in life. It also helped people to find meaning in their lives.

Loneliness has been a feature of many of the tragic suicides he has come across as South Tipperary’s coroner.

He feels Irish people need to visit and reach out more to vulnerable neighbours, friends and relatives, who may be suffering from loneliness and isolation, and to listen to them.

“The one big thing is the importance of listening. Even if the speaker is repeating themselves three to four times you almost have to say to yourself bear with this because we could be saving a life,” he said.

In his thoughtful and philosophical address to the recent Suicide Awareness meeting in Clonmel’s Minella Hotel, Mr Morris quoted from Booker Prize winning writer Anne Enright’s account of her personal experience of suffering from depression and suicidal ideas and how she survived them.

Her experience showed that suicidal feelings can be overcome, he pointed out. “Just because you had the idea, it doesn’t mean you go through with it,” he said.

Meanwhile, The Nationalist contacted a range of Irish financial institutions including AIB, Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank, ACC as well as the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (formerly Anglo Irish Bank) this week to ask if they have policies in place to ensure their staff don’t breach the Non-Fatal Offences Against the State Act in dealing with clients. Only Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank responded.

Bank of Ireland stated that in dealing with its personal customers concerning mortgages or unsecured borrowings such as loans or credit cards, it was bound by the Central Bank’s Code of Conduct on Mortgage Arrears or the Central Bank’s Consumer Protection Code.

“The bank fully observes the similar rule in each code that its communications with the customer on arrears must be ‘...proportionate and not excessive’.The practices the bank has in place to observe the codes ensures that Sections 10 and 11 of the 1997 Act are not breached.”

An Ulster Bank spokesperson said Ulster Bank was compliant with the provisions of the Act.