Tamsyn Parker

Money Editor for NZ Herald

10,000 join fight against banks

Australian firm funding New Zealand barrister expects 25 per cent cut of any winnings in billion-dollar legal case.

Andrew Hooker won't say who he banks with but isn't worried that the billion-dollar legal case he is taking against New Zealand's major banks will force him to stash his cash under a mattress.

Hooker, a barrister based on Auckland's North Shore, is leading a fight against the banks that he claims are charging illegal and unfair fees on defaults such as bounced cheques and direct debits.

More than 10,000 people have already registered to join the legal action which was only announced at 1pm on Monday.

Hooker is no stranger to taking on the big guys although he has never taken on the banks before.

Much of his work in the past five years has been against the insurance companies. Before that he was on the other side of the fence working for the insurance companies, including being legal counsel for insurer Tower for a number of years.

Hooker said his work taking on the insurance industry had upset some in the field but he expected the banks would take his latest pursuit with a grain of salt.

"It's nothing personal. I'm sure our banks are man enough not to take it personally."

Hooker said he had a number of banking relationships but is debt free.

Hooker and Slater & Gordon, the Australian law firm which is backing him, have faced criticism of their involvement in the case saying they are just in it for the money.

Claims have been made that Hooker will get $3.5 million for his part in the legal action but he rubbishes that number.

"It's nothing like that. I'm on an hourly rate," he said. "It's a significantly reduced rate because I believe in this. But of course I am not a charity." The firm funding the legal case Litigation Funding Services will get a 25 per cent cut of any winnings.

Hooker said that did not mean they would be getting $250 million. "We are not going to recover a billion dollars."

Litigation Funding Services is expecting to cough up $3.5 million to $4 million for the case - money which they won't get back if they don't win.

The New Zealand Bankers Association has been playing down the case by saying that the Commerce Commission has already looked into default fees and already has guidance on three out of four of the fees which the case is targeting.

But Hooker said the commission had only dealt with credit card fees and they didn't get any money back for punters.

"This is about getting money back."

He said the kind of people these fees most affect are those on a low fixed income.

"It comes to pay day and their direct debits go out and one bounces and bang they get hit by a $15 fee. These people end up in a debt spiral," Hooker said.

"The law suggests it is not the role of the banks to punish people. It's like a fine," he said. "They are not the direct debit police. They are running a business and are entitled to charge a fair amount."

The case

*Auckland lawyer Andrew Hooker, Australian law firm Slater & Gordon and Australian litigation funders Litigation Lending Services are claiming banks are charging excessive default fees.
*Up to one million Kiwis are thought to be eligible to join the case to claim up to $1 billion back.
*More than 10,000 people have already signed up online at www.fairplayonfees.co.nz.
*All New Zealand banks are being targeted but the Australian-owned banks ANZ, ASB, BNZ and Westpac as well as state-owned Kiwibank are expected to be the main ones.

- NZ Herald

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