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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 June 2007, 05:06 GMT 06:06 UK
Mass hearing for overdraft claims
By Ian Pollock
Personal finance reporter, BBC News

Alan Abrahams and Val Knight-Gibbons
Alan Abrahams and Val Knight-Gibbons reclaimed 25,000 in May
A record number of people are due to have their claims for the return of bank overdraft charges dealt with at Leeds Mercantile Court.

About 200 cases were originally scheduled to be heard, though some have been settled at the last minute.

It is the latest in a series of mass hearings that have been heard at courts around the country as they deal with the continuing wave of litigation.

So far there have been only two instances where a claimant has lost.

Illegal charges?

In the past year there has been an unprecedented wave of mass litigation in which disgruntled bank customers have sued their banks for the return of the charges they have had to pay for having an unauthorised overdraft.

In many cases the sums of money being claimed run into several thousand pounds per person.

Typically the claimants argue that the charges are too high and contravene consumer protection law.

The banks maintain the charges are perfectly legal and that their customers have signed up for them in the contracts that govern the running of their current accounts.

In practice the banks have attempted to settle all the cases against them rather than willingly contest one before a judge, because they are afraid that a lost case might set a precedent.

That could see all the banks being forced to go back through their records for the past six years, repaying overdraft charges to every single customer who they have charged in that time.

Settling cases

Sometimes the banks settle promptly when they receive a letter from a customer demanding the return of their charges.

The London Mercantile Court
More than 300 cases have come to the London Mercantile Court

In other cases the banks procrastinate and file a written defence, but then settle the claim just before it is due to be heard in court.

Other times they simply fail to turn up in court at all, leaving the judge to find in the claimant's favour by default.

The case in which a judge found in favour of a bank happened almost by accident in Birmingham in May.

It was the first example of a judge examining the legal issues at hand, even though the bank in question, Lloyds TSB, had failed to send any lawyers to defend itself at the hearing.

In another case in Carlisle a claim was dismissed because it had not been made out properly, even though again the bank did not turn up to argue its defence.

However, a judge in Hull has now seized on the ruling of Judge Cooke in Birmingham and is threatening to throw out more than 40 bank charges cases in one go next month.

Backlog

In order to clear the large number of cases coming before district and county courts, mass hearings have taken place in the past few months at courts in Leeds, London, Guildford and Birmingham, with more to come in the next few weeks.

All the UK banks have, so far, steadfastly refused to reveal how many people have threatened to sue them, or how much they have paid out.

Earlier this month, Judge Stephen Gerlis, who speaks for district judges in London, pointed out that the legal system has no way of resolving a situation in which the underlying issues are failing to be tested and resolved by a court case.

He said that the judicial authorities had no mechanism for dragging a test case into a senior court to establish whether or not the banks' overdraft charges were legal or not.

Judge Gerlis called for a change in the law to end this situation which he described as "bizarre".




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