Bank fees lawsuit widened

RICHARD MEADOWS
Last updated 05:00 12/02/2014

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Major banks say they will vigorously defend themselves in lawsuits which claim they charged customers "unfair" penalty fees.

The Fair Play on Fees campaign group has announced it will file legal proceedings against Bank of New Zealand, Westpac and Auckland Savings Bank on February 28.

The group has already started similar legal action against ANZ, the country's biggest bank, and state-owned Kiwibank.

Fair Play on Fees spokesman, Auckland lawyer Andrew Hooker, said its research suggested penalty fees charged by the three banks were at a similar level to those of ANZ and Kiwibank.

"This launch means that the five banks with over 90 per cent of the retail banking market will all face a Fair Play on Fees case," he said.

ASB spokesman Christian May said the bank had seen the announcement from the group, but had not yet had any contact from the funders of the litigation.

"While we will need to review the proceedings in detail, it is our intention to vigorously defend the claim," he said.

May encouraged customers concerned about fees to talk to the bank directly.

BNZ said it would review the details of the proceedings once papers were served.

Head of retail Andy Symons said the bank fully disclosed all its fees and the particular fees being singled out were avoidable.

He said BNZ constantly reviewed its approach to fees and last year had removed fees for unarranged overdrafts of less than $20.

Westpac spokesman Chris Mirams said the bank would review the proceedings if and when they were filed.

"It is our intention to vigorously defend any action that is brought," he said.

"We continue to encourage customers with concerns to contact us directly."

More than 38,800 customers have signed up to the lawsuit so far, including 7300 from Westpac, 5000 from BNZ and 6000 from ASB.

Customers of the three latest banks who want to join the action have until 11pm on February 27 to confirm a place.

The group's argument is that it is illegal for banks to punish customers for late or failed payments by charging any more than the actual costs incurred.

The representative action, which is understood to be the largest brought in New Zealand, requires a lead plaintiff for each lawsuit.

The lead plaintiff for the case against BNZ is Chris Beere, who has racked up more than $1400 of default fees over the past six years.

Beere said he had a major health issue five years ago which meant he had to abruptly stop working.

"Unfortunately, the fees I was incurring as a result of that situation kept piling up," he said.

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The lead plaintiff for the ASB case is Alison Withers, while the lead plaintiffs for the Westpac case are Renee and Mike Hau.

The penalty fees at the heart of the dispute include for unarranged overdrafts, dishonour fees, over-limit fees and late-payment fees.

Last week, consumers fighting a similar battle in the Australian Federal Court won a partial victory against ANZ.

The court ruled the late-payment fees ANZ charged on credit cards were illegal and agreed they were "extravagant, exorbitant and unconscionable".

However, it also decided that honour fees, dishonour fees and non-payment fees, were legal.

The no-fee action is being bankrolled by Litigation Lending Services (NZ), which will take a 25 per cent cut of any proceeds awarded.

- BusinessDay

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