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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 05:10 GMT 06:10 UK
Banks face settlements or test cases
By Ian Pollock
BBC personal finance reporter at the Leeds Mercantile Court

Gemma Shippin
Gemma Shippin still has to wait for her case to be settled

"How annoying" muttered Gemma Shippin as she left Leeds Mercantile Court, thwarted, at least temporarily, in her desire for a victory over her bank.

Ms Shippin was one of 250 people who had taken their banks to court in a mass hearing to get a refund of their overdraft fees.

She was also one of the few people whose claims had not been settled in their favour immediately.

Most claims had been settled in advance, with just 75 or so scheduled to go before the judge when the huge "case management hearing" got underway on Thursday.

However, Judge Simon Grenfell made it clear, in the politest manner possible, that if the banks did not settle the remaining cases in due course, they might face their greatest fear - a test case.

"I want to pick those cases that will bring the important issues before the court so that the issues can be decided," he said.

A test case would determine whether or not the charges were a penalty and if they were unfair or illegal under the law, he added.

'Stalling tactic'

The fact that the banks settled early would not have come as a surprise to anyone who has been watching the flood of cases that has inundated the legal system in England and Wales.

The massive wave of do-it-yourself litigation against banks in the past year or so has strained the courts and the banks involved.

More than 600 cases have been heard in Leeds alone, taking in cases from just some of the Yorkshire county courts.

Are the charges a penalty and are they unfair or illegal under the law?
Judge Grenfell

The most bizarre feature of all this is that despite arguing on paper that their charges are fair and lawful, none of the banks seem to be willing to have the legal issues tested in court, in case they lose.

One claimant, Ben Stansfield, had had his claim for 964 settled the day before, while his mother, who he was representing in court, was offered her 1,213 on the morning of the court hearing.

"It's taken six or seven months to get this far," he said. "For them to come in two minutes before the judge comes out to give us the money seems a bit harsh."

Lee Coward from Leeds had received a cheque for 3,000 from the Clydesdale bank the day before the hearing.

But it had previously warned him that its own legal costs might reach 300,000 if a case went ahead.

It's all a ploy to intimidate," he said. "The banks are using the courts as a stalling tactic on claims they have no intention of defending."

Leniency

The barrister for Lloyds TSB admitted that his bank's solicitors were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of claims they have to deal with.

Lee Coward
Lee Coward received 3,000 to settle his overdraft claim

Even so, frustration was common among the Leeds claimants at the seemingly endless ability of the banks to procrastinate.

Julie from Leeds, asking for 7,000 from the NatWest, said: "I started my claim last December but I have had no communication at all, until Thursday last week."

Several claimants were visibly annoyed on Thursday when Judge Grenfell treated their banks with apparent leniency, giving them an extra 28 days to come to a settlement after claiming they had not received enough information.

Stephen Whiting protested that Lloyds TSB had already lost his details - twice.

Why should he have to produce them again he asked?

Jenny Barton and Richard Leathley were both astonished to find that their bank, the Alliance & Leicester, had simply decided it was not worth its while even to bother attending the hearing.

Numbers game

Lawyers for the various banks spent the best part of a three-hour adjournment trying to strike deals with their aggrieved customers.

Lawyer Dan Hayes
Lawyer Dan Hayes deplored the banks' tactics

Solicitor Dan Hayes, who had dropped into court to watch the proceedings as an interested observer, gave his informed view of the day's proceedings.

"The reason it drags out for months is that the banks try to deter their clients from carrying on or try to get them to settle for less than their full claim," he said.

"It's a pure numbers game."

Tellingly, not one bank barrister at the court even attempted to argue that their client had a sound case and would defend their charges if push came to shove.

Judge Grenfell's desire for a test case will have to wait a while longer.




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