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Last Updated: Friday, 15 June 2007, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
Judge slams bank payout delays
By Ian Pollock
Personal finance reporter, BBC News, London Mercantile Court

An Abbey customer
Banks are being besieged by customers asking for money back
Banks have come in for fresh criticism from a high court judge for delaying tactics in dealing with customers suing for the return of overdraft charges.

Judge David Mackie QC made his comments as he dealt with more than 30 cases at the London Mercantile court.

Most of the cases were settled in favour of the claimants with the others being adjourned.

But the judge said some cases could have been dealt with months ago if the banks had engaged with the claimants.

More than 80 cases had originally been listed for hearing at the court in an attempt to clear a backlog of cases in the London area.

Most were settled by the banks in advance, but 31 were still on the list for this morning.

With some being settled overnight, and two more being added as the hearings went on, a pattern soon established itself.

No excuse

Barrister Winston James, acting for Lloyds TSB which faced 20 of the cases, conceded most of each claim he defended and offered a partial settlement.

This case could have been settled months ago
Judge Mackie QC

In most of the cases, he asked for a delay so the bank could get more information from the claimant about the details of their claim.

It was this behaviour which aggravated Judge Mackie, who had publicly criticised the tactics of the banks at an earlier hearing in May.

In the case of self-employed actor Kevin Macisaac, Lloyds TSB said it needed more details of his claim for 1,217.73.

But Mr Macisaac pointed out that he had sent those details back in January, and asked why the bank was requesting them again now.

As Mr James admitted that there was "no excuse", Judge Mackie said: "This case could have been settled months ago."

Similarly, Charla Givens - who was claiming 1,955 - showed that the details the bank now said it needed had in fact been supplied in January.

"The bank should have settled back in January," said the judge, as he backed her claim.

Message

The attempts to delay proceedings cut little ice with claimants.

London Mercantile Court
London Mercantile Court, scene of the latest mass hearings

Philip Skues, who was claiming 449.51 from Lloyds TSB, turned up at court - only to be told the bank had settled with him the day before.

After telling the court that no message had been left on his answering machine, Judge Mackie said there was "no good reason why the bank could not have told him sooner".

Mr Skuse, and several other claimants, were awarded 100 each for having to take a day off work to come to court and having their time wasted by the banks' "unreasonable" behaviour.

In some cases, claimants were asked by the judge to provide some more details of the charges they felt we unfair.

But typically the banks were warned that they would have to pay up if they did not lodge an objection within 7 to 28 days after receiving the required data.

Shocked

The steady procession of cases illustrated some of the pitfalls of trying to sue a bank yourself.

In some cases, not only did the other banks bank not send a barrister or solicitor - the claimant did not turn up either.

These cases were adjourned to July.

Two cases were disrupted by administrative problems afflicting county courts in London - the venue one step down the judicial ladder, where most of the cases begin.

Lambeth county court was described as a "bottomless pit" when it became clear that a claimant's documents had been lost.

One woman appeared on the verge of tears when told that Uxbridge county court had not sent on her bundle of documents.

"I am shocked," she said.

But Judge Mackie explained that the county courts were "swamped".

With tens of thousands of people trying to sue for the return of overdraft charges, these "mass hearings" are becoming more common.

One this week in Guildford originally had 125 cases listed.

The London Mercantile court is to stage another in July, while later this month Leeds Mercantile court attempts to stage some sort of record, with around 200 cases scheduled for just one day.

So far, the outcome for the banks has always been the same - in the absence of any attempt to justify their charges, they have had to pay up.


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