The Master of the High Court has strongly criticised banks and other credit institutions for the relentless pursuit of those unable to pay their debts.

Edmund Honohan said the pursuit of people to the bitter end as part of an accountancy exercise to write-off debts for tax relief was leading to social disquiet and driving some people to suicide.

Mr Honohan, who deals with a range of applications, including the enforcement of judgment mortgages, said new laws are needed to protect those unable to pay their debts.

He added a level of 'debt forgiveness' needs to be introduced.

Mr Honohan also described some banks as 'cheerleaders for the Celtic Tiger' and said some were 'then reverting to type and come to court assuming the banker always wins. That is not how the law sees it'.

Existing laws provided a measure of protection for debtors in difficulty and banks should not expect to have it all their own way, he said.

He added there was no reason why legislation should not be changed to 'put a brake' on the spiralling number of judgments against those who cannot pay.

This would be a way of introducing debt forgiveness, he said, adding: 'Why should there be an incentive to cause untold harm socially when there is no money at the end of the road?'

He said if evidence is found that any transactions were in reality a joint venture with the bank, the law would insist that both parties share the losses.

Mr Honohan said most of the debt cases arose due to circumstances beyond the control of the debtor because the economy had shut down as a result of the banking collapse.

While debtors may think they are 'outlaws in uncharted territory', even members of the 'new debt set' had legal rights, he said.

He said it was a criminal offence to demand repayment so frequently as to cause alarm, distress or humiliation; to tell a debtor they are guilty of criminal offence; to pretend to be officially authorised by law to enforce payment and unjustified enrichment of creditors was also prohibited under law.

The Master, who deals with a range of legal matters including applications to register and enforce judgments, made the remarks yesterday when dealing with several such cases.