For the last 12 months, the whole of the UK has been struggling financially as a result of the recession; jobs have been lost and many are finding it hard to meet payments on their mortgages and debts. If you live in Northern Ireland and are struggling to pay your mortgage, try not to worry: the following is a guide to the repossession process and the help available to you.
Technically, your home can be repossessed after only 2 missed payments, but lenders usually wait much longer than this before proceedings are issued. The key is communication – as soon as you begin to have trouble meeting repayments, contact your lender. This way, they are more likely to try to help you and find a mutual solution.
If you ignore the problem, it will only get worse and any debt will become harder to tackle and thus repossession will become much more likely. If you feel that the problem is overwhelming you, contact an agency that offers free independent advice, such as Housing Advice NI or the Citizens Advice Bureau – they will be able to help you work out your options and assist in negotiation with your lender.
- If you are struggling with debt, place importance on priority debts such as your mortgage and council tax, rather than non-priority ones such as credit cards and unsecured loans – this could mean the difference between keeping your home and having it repossessed. Pay as much to your mortgage repayments as you can possibly afford.
- If you lose your job, you may be entitled to help with your mortgage from the Government. If you receive benefits such as income support and jobseeker’s allowance, you may get help paying the interest on your mortgage. Similarly, if you are covered by payment protection insurance, your mortgage payments will be met for up to 12 months, should you lose your job or become sick.
- Unfortunately, the mortgage relief scheme recently launched in England, (where people who are having trouble paying their mortgage may defer repayment for up to 2 years) does not apply to Northern Ireland. However, a proposal has been put forward for such a scheme and this will hopefully be launched in the near future.
- If you fall behind on mortgage payments and receive an arrears letter from your lender, do not ignore it. Your lender is much more likely to help you if you demonstrate that you are actively trying to solve the problem – they may give you a period of time to clear arrears or allow you to pay a set amount each month.
- If you ignore your lenders letters or fail to keep to an arrears repayment agreement, you will receive a letter from your lender’s solicitor. This will give you a period of time to pay up arrears in full, or will ask that you make a proposal to pay what you owe. If this letter is ignored, court proceedings may be started, so it is important that you respond as soon as possible.
- If a case goes to court, it does not mean that you will automatically lose your home – it is the court’s job to give both sides a fair hearing before making any decisions. Each case is decided on its own merits. Even if a repossession order is granted, the process takes many weeks or months and you still may be able to keep your home – this is dependent on why the lender has taken action and whether you can pay off any arrears.
- Repossessions for Northern Ireland take place at the high court in Belfast, and, even after a repossession hearing, you may be allowed to stay in your home – for example, if the judge feels there is not a good enough reason to repossess or if he feels you should be given extra time to pay off arrears.
- In the above circumstances, the judge may adjourn the case or grant a suspended repossession order. A case may be adjourned if the judge needs more information, you are trying to clear arrears, or you are trying to secure the sale of your home. If you are granted a suspended repossession order but do not stick to the terms of this, your property will be repossessed (even after one missed payment).
- Regarding a suspended repossession order, the terms of this may be changed in certain circumstances; for example, if you lose your job. You will need to apply to the court to do this.
- If the judge does grant your lender a repossession order, the lender has to apply to the Enforcement of Judgements office in order to have the court’s decision enforced. This is done in several parts, and even at this late stage, you may be able to remain in your home if you can repay your arrears – contact your lender to discuss.
- If you have no option but to move out, you will need to find alternative accommodation quickly. Upon the sale of your property, any funds raised will be deducted from your mortgage, and you will be liable for any shortfall (if applicable).
Trevor Long, Chief Enforcement Officer for the Enforcement of Judgements Office, Northern Ireland, comments;
‘The Enforcement of Judgments Office (EJO) is part of the Northern Ireland Court Service and it has the task of enforcing Civil Court Orders, including repossessions. If the Court Order has not been complied with, the lender will pay a fee to EJO to have the order enforced. Unfortunately, in a growing proportion of repossession cases, proceedings end in eviction where the property is be handed over to the lender after the occupants and their belongings have been removed.
However, even when cases reach EJO, eviction can be avoided if an agreement is reached between the parties. When asked to enforce a repossession case, EJO Officers will contact you and explain the enforcement process; they will also give you an indication of how long you have to resolve the matter. EJO staff will also provide you with details of relevant advice bodies and we will strongly advise you to contact them. Whilst EJO has an understanding of the difficult position people facing repossession find themselves in, we have a clear message – the Court has made an Order which must be complied with.
EJO will work strenuously with all parties to reach an agreed solution but will enforce the Court Order if an alternative resolution is not found. EJO staff are experienced and willing to listen and advise whenever possible – they also actively engage with organisations such as Housing Rights Service and Citizens Advice Bureau, in order to ensure that everyone has access to good advice.
Further information on the EJO, our processes and contact information for our Office and relevant advice bodies is available at the NI Court Service website www.courtsni.gov.uk.