On a balmy June evening in Dublin, with pubs overflowing, Brodrick O’Neill is inside the Ashling Hotel learning how to declare personal bankruptcy.
“It’s a no-brainer,” said O’Neill, 52, a former taxi driver who still owes his bank about 80,000 euros ($109,064) after selling his house. “What else can I do? I’m broke.”
Bankruptcy is increasingly becoming the route of choice for some Irish individuals trying to cope with the legacy of the worst real-estate crash in Western Europe. Under new laws that made the process easier, borrowers can exit bankruptcy after three years with a clean financial bill of health instead of 12 years previously.
After the deepest recession since at least the 1940s, with unemployment still near 12 percent, many people are still crushed under the weight of debt. Household borrowing in 2012 was 198 percent of income, compared with 123 percent in Spain, 132 percent in the U.K. and 98 percent in the euro region, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics office.
Along with central bank pressure, the prospect of a flurry of bankruptcies and insolvency is forcing banks to negotiate just as borrowing costs fall to record lows for the government. The yield on benchmark 10-year bonds was 2.36 percent today compared with a peak of 14.2 percent in July 2011.
“Bankruptcy is a game-changer,” said Ross Maguire, 45, a Dublin-born lawyer who helped set up New Beginning, which shepherds people through the process. He had spoken to about 150 people, including O’Connor. “Banks are forced to do deals.”
About 66,000 mortgages on family homes were permanently restructured by the end of April through agreements such as extensions to the term of the loans, the Finance Ministry said on June 12, citing figures from six of the country’s biggest banks. That’s an increase of 21,000 from the end of September.
About 13,000 mortgages on rental properties were restructured, up by a third from September. In all, about 142,000 borrowers, or a quarter of the total, are behind with their payments, the Finance Ministry said.
Dublin courts have declared 132 bankruptcies so far this year, compared with eight in all of 2008.
Sitting in his office close to the domed Four Courts, Chris Lehane, who oversees bankruptcy cases at the government’s insolvency service, said about 1,000 will be heard this year. While that’s well below the 3,000 envisaged by then Justice Minister Alan Shatter in a 2012 speech, it compares with fewer than 100 in the previous three years combined.
Most bankruptcies are linked to the property crash and the people who attend the meeting at the Ashling Hotel, which overlooks the River Liffey, are struggling with debt.
Maguire, the lawyer, helped found the pro-bono organization in 2010 to stop foreclosures on family homes, gumming up the process by finding flaws in the laws underpinning seizures. He now helps run what he calls a “one-stop shop to deal with debt.” New Beginning charges debtors 3,500 euros to take them through bankruptcy, with 1,000 euros going to the organization and the rest earmarked for legal and government fees.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was bankrupt twice, Maguire tells his attentive audience. Walt Disney and Henry Ford were also bankrupts, he says.
“That’s how the world works,” he said. “If a fella falls down, you are allowed start again.”
Wearing a gray suit, white shirt and striped ties, Maguire was deluged with questions.
A pregnant woman fanned herself and listened as her partner asked what happens to their home if he were to declare bankruptcy. A man separated from his wife wondered what the official overseeing his potential bankruptcy would do with his interest in the family home, where his former partner still lives.
“He won’t want to move in,” said Maguire.
“Yeah, neither would I,” comes the quick response from the man, who doesn’t identify himself, to laughter in the room as the tension breaks.
At the end of the two-hour meeting, members of the audience line up to speak with Maguire individually, wondering what will happen to their inheritances, pensions and homes if they go bankrupt.
“Many are doing deals with the banks directly rather than through formal processes, but I’m still surprised that more people aren’t going through bankruptcy,” Lehane said. “In Ireland, there is such a stigma, there are people who are edging closer to bankruptcy but don’t want to jump. But many will have to if they can’t otherwise get a sustainable solution.”
Maguire is exploring the idea of linking up with an overseas bank to deal with the future financial needs of people who went through the process.
At New Beginning’s headquarters a few days after the Dublin seminar, most of meeting rooms are occupied as its 30 lawyers, accountants and financial advisers meet clients. About 40 meetings arose from the Ashling Hotel gathering.
Brodrick O’Neill hopes to become a client shortly. He had to sell his house, which he bought with what he called a “Celtic Tiger” mortgage, after falling behind in payments. He said he’s now living in a rooming house.
There’s only one problem, he said. He can’t afford the New Beginning fee. “I’ll have to ask them waive it,” he said.