New Zealand Class Action Targets ‘Unfair’ Bank Fees

New Zealand’s registered banks are the target of what is reported to be the country’s biggest-ever class action lawsuit, spearheaded by three law firms seeking the return of allegedly excessive bank default fees for bank customers.

The legal action has been mounted by New Zealand lawyer Andrew Hooker, Australian legal firm Slater and Gordon and litigation funder Litigation Lending Services (NZ), which allege the banks have unfairly charged around NZ$1bn (US$822m) in fees over the past six years. Hooker said that more than a million New Zealanders were eligible to join the action, dubbed ‘Fair Pay on Fees’.

“Customers are charged an average of NZ$15 every time they overdraw their accounts, pay their credit card late or bounce a cheque when the cost to the bank is actually just a few cents,” he added.

“Banks are in the privileged position of having access to customers’ funds and can just extract these fees from customers without much of a right of reply. They have also relied on individuals not making the effort to take the banks to court.”

The country’s four biggest banks – Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ), ASB Bank, Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) and Westpac – are all Australian-owned and the fifth-biggest, Kiwibank, is owned by the New Zealand government. A similar action in Australia, targeting that country’s 12 biggest banks, has been ongoing since May 2010

Kirk Hope, chief executive officer (CEO) of the New Zealand Bankers Association (NZBA), said that the banks would take the claim seriously and would have to provision for the cost. However, he added that the action did not appear to take into account the differences between New Zealand and Australian law and that “there isn’t such a thing as a class action in New Zealand”.

Hope also said that three of the four fees cited by the lawsuit were already regulated by the Commerce Commission, New Zealand’s competition enforcement and regulatory agency. “They [the Commission] have previously taken action against the banks. If they think there are issues they will certainly look at them.”

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