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15,000 in courts over non-payment of property rates

There were over 15,000 court actions for non-payment of rates in Northern Ireland during the last nine months, it has been revealed.

And more than £68m worth of debt has been rolled over from previous years, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said.

The DUP minister acknowledged the effects of the recession and said extended payment arrangements were offered to those in genuine need. But he declared that his department would continue to “focus its energies” on collecting all that was due.

Scott Kennerley, money advisor at the Citizens' Advice Bureau (CAB), said people had acquired too much debt and were suffering during the economic downturn.

“What we are seeing in Northern Ireland is a dramatic increase in the number of people experiencing financial difficulties from all spectrums of the socio-economic scale,” he said.

He said the CAB was meeting many more people struggling with debt problems.

“We are experiencing a year-on-year increase in terms of demand for debt advice services because the availability of credit in recent years masked any type of financial difficulty or problem,” he said.

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“More and more people were using credit to service living expenses. Now that available credit has contracted, that route has been shut off to people.”

Mr Kennerley said some people had previously secured their debt against their properties but those options were no longer available.

“We are seeing more and more clients coming from more affluent areas,” he added.

There has been an increase in mortgage arrears cases. The number of people across the UK who had their homes repossessed reached a 14-year high during 2009, figures have shown. The Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) said 46,000 homes were repossessed last year, the highest number since 1995.

Mr Wilson said at the end of February, £69.7m of outstanding debt had been collected or discharged, leaving a prior year debt figure at that date of £68.4m.

The debt figure acquired during the year will be added to the prior year debt during the completion of the 2009-2010 accounts.

The minister said the rising level of ratepayer debt was due to the difficult economic climate, increased complexity of the rating system which made it more difficult to collect money, and the continuing belief of many ratepayers in Northern Ireland that failure to pay rates is acceptable.

“My department continues to focus its energies on collecting all rates that are due,” he added.

“We attempt to offer extended payment arrangements for those suffering genuine difficulty in paying, but we have also been granted over 15,000 court decrees for non-payment of rates during the last nine months.”

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