Tamsyn Parker

Tamsyn Parker is the NZ Herald's Money Editor

ANZ Bank first to court in fee case

The New Zealand Bankers' Association expects a legal case claiming the ANZ charged its customers unfair penalty fees will be vigorously defended.

The bank was named today as the first target in a class action style law suit being taken by Auckland barrister Andrew Hooker.

Hooker, who is backed by Australian law firm Slater & Gordon says he will file court documents in the High Court in Auckland on Tuesday against the bank and is encouraging ANZ customers to sign up before then to take part in the action.

More than 25,000 Kiwis have signed up to be part of his Fair Play on Fees campaign and 11,000 are from the ANZ bank and its recently rebranded subsidiary National Bank.

Kirk Hope, chief executive of the bankers association, said penalty fees were usually avoidable and customers concerned about their fees should talk to their bank to make sure they had the right accounts and products.

"If people are looking for an easier way to resolve the issue they should talk to their bank. Looking at the Australian experience, the action has gone on for a very long time and remains unresolved."

Hope said the New Zealand banking sector was very competitive and customers had a huge amount of choice

"Our banks communicate very clearly on fees, and the vast majority of customers don't incur these kinds of fees."

ANZ's retail managing director Kerri Thompson said the claim had come as a surprise to the bank today.

"It's a sad day when US-style litigation arrives in New Zealand," she said.

Thompson said the bank was upfront about its exception fees, which were set out in the terms and conditions provided to our customers.

"Exception fees are avoidable and the vast majority of New Zealanders don't pay them in any given year.

"We are not aware of large numbers of customers being unhappy with the exception fees outlined in our terms and conditions."

She described the action as unnecessary, unfortunate and one which risked subjecting customers to a long and expensive legal process with no guaranteed outcome.

ANZ and former National Bank customers must register at www.fairplayonfees.co.nz by 11pm on Monday, 24 June 2013 to be included in the case. Court documents will then be lodged on Tuesday, 25 June.

In a statement released this afternoon, Hooker said the case would claim repayment of default fees charged by both ANZ and its former subsidiary National Bank over the past six years. These included fees for unarranged overdrafts or rejected payments on deposit accounts, as well as late payment or exceeding a credit limit on credit cards.

"The launch of Fair Play on Fees in March saw over 25,000 Kiwis sign up to claim back these unfair fees," said Hooker, "ANZ has overcharged hundreds of millions of dollars over the past six years. Their customers have come to us in droves, with over 11,000 signing up in the past three months. We expect thousands more to join them over the next week."

Hooker said he would "do the best he can to include everyone who signs up, but after the court documents are lodged there are no guarantees. "While there may be later opportunities for ANZ customers to register, we expect that the bank's lawyers will do what they can to keep as many people out of the case as possible."

"The message we want to get out to people today is that they need to act now if they want to get their unfair fees back."

The lead plaintiff for the case against ANZ and National Bank is Auckland resident Sandra Cooper. Cooper and her cleaning business banked with National Bank before last year's merger with ANZ.

She says that over the past six years she has been hit with around $1,500 in default fees, making her "a typical claimant" in the case.

In the release published today, Cooper said she was generally only charged fees when she had not realised her account would be overdrawn.

"This means that I was usually overdrawn by only about $50 for a couple of days at a time. So while the interest on the overdrafts was just a few cents, the $15 fee they charged to administer it really stung."

Hooker said the case was all about the difference between the fees charged by the bank, and the cost to them of managing the default. "If these fees were fair, the banks would have justified the need to charge their fees by now. Their silence says it all."

He said he expected to announce proceedings against the other major banks in coming months.

Australian law firm Slater & Gordon is backing the case. It says the litigation is structured "to ensure claimants have no upfront costs and nothing to lose by joining the action."

Legal services are being provided on a 'no win - no fee' basis.

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