Ireland’s top legal official has warned that crippling debt and pressure from the banks is leading to suicide and untold social harm.

Edmund Honohan, Master of the High Courts, is leading the calls on the Irish government to draft legislation allowing some forgiveness for struggling homeowners.

“We know which banks were the cheerleaders for the tiger. Yet some banks are reverting to type and come to court assuming that the banker always wins anyway. That’s not how the law sees it,” Master Honohan told the Irish media.

“I have met the widows of people driven to take their own lives over relatively small debts,” he told RTE,Ireland’s state radio, before he added: “A fresh start' scheme of debt forgiveness should be introduced for people.”

The calls for legislation to help those worst affected by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger have intensified in the wake of Honohan’s comments in relation to the banks and their attitudes towards customers struggling to make repayments.

Honohan has roundly criticized banks and other creditors for pursuing ‘to the bitter end’ debtors who simply cannot pay.

He has also suggested that meaningless ‘accountancy exercises’ were causing considerable social disquiet and driving some people to suicide.

The banking industry has criticized Honohan’s comments with a spokesman for the Irish Bankers’ Federation describing them as insensitive, emotive and inflammatory.

But Honohan defended himself when he spoke to RTE Radio on Thursday morning.

Honohan, brother of the governor of the Central Bank Patrick, defended his use of language and his reference to suicide.

He told the Morning Ireland programme: “Some people who were feeling suicidal yesterday might be feeling better today because someone had acknowledged their situation.

“My comments were about making practical efforts to tackle desperate situations in which debts have already been written off.

“Some of these things are simple and could be legislated for within a month but that part of the problem is that no one in finance knows the law and no one in the Department of Justice knows finance.”

The Honohan comments were supported by Ireland’s Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS).

David Culloty of MABS said the Government needed to address the LRC proposals. “Debt settlement may be a better approach, rather than debt forgiveness on its own,” he said.

Edmund Honohan, Master of the High Courts