FOS and internal dispute resolution
This chapter examines Internal Dispute Resolution (IDR) procedures and
one External Dispute Resolution (EDR) scheme known as the Financial Ombudsman
Australian credit providers are required to put in place a dispute
resolution system consisting of internal review procedures, known as internal
dispute resolution or IDR, as well as membership of an external dispute
resolution scheme. Consumers can submit a complaint to their bank through the
bank's IDR procedures. If the consumer is not satisfied with the response
received from their bank, they may then submit a complaint to the EDR scheme to which the bank belongs. There are two main EDR schemes that have been
approved by ASIC under the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009,
the Financial Services Ombudsman (FOS) and the Credit and Investments Ombudsman
These two schemes are discussed in further detail along with other dispute
resolution arrangements in Chapter 4.
The chapter includes the following sections:
internal dispute resolution;
self-reporting of breaches of the Banking Code of Conduct by
issues raised by submitters, include the inaccessibility of the
similar experiences in the United Kingdom (UK); and
the jurisdiction of the FOS;
In this report the committee has largely considered issues related to
banks as the committee only received limited evidence in relation to the
customer owned banking sector. The committee notes however, that where it makes
recommendations to improve the dispute resolution system, its intention is for
those recommendations to apply to all authorised deposit taking institutions
Internal dispute resolution
The committee received limited evidence during the inquiry from
submitters regarding IDR procedures in banks. However, because the majority of
the evidence received by the committee concerned disputes with banks, the committee
examined the IDR procedures that banks have in place.
ASIC Regulatory Guide 165 requires banks to have IDR procedures that
meet the standards or requirements approved by ASIC. When approving standards
or requirements for IDR procedures, ASIC is required to take into account Australian
Standard AS ISO 10002–2006 Customer satisfaction—Guidelines for complaints
handling in organisations.
ASIC considers IDR to be an important and necessary first step in the
complaints/disputes handling process because it gives lenders the opportunity
to hear borrower concerns and address them genuinely, efficiently and
effectively. ASIC considers that addressing complaints or disputes through IDR
can also assist in improving business systems and products/services, which is
integral to growing a successful business.
ASIC advises banks that wherever possible, they should seek to resolve
complaints or disputes directly with borrowers through IDR procedures. It is
better for all parties if a complaint or dispute is dealt with at the earliest
possible stage because it prevents complaints or disputes from becoming
entrenched, preserves customer relationships, is efficient and cost-effective
and may improve customer satisfaction.
ASIC Regulatory Guide 165 requires that both retail and small business
customers are covered by IDR procedures. As a minimum, any IDR procedure for
financial service providers must be able to deal with complaints made by
'retail clients', as defined in section 761G of the Corporations Act and its
related regulations, and this includes small businesses. A small business is
defined in s761G as a business employing fewer than: (a) 100 people (if the
business manufactures goods or includes the manufacture of goods); or (b) 20
FOS indicated that, in its view, IDR arrangements provide the
cornerstone for effective consumer redress mechanisms in the financial sector.
The vast majority of consumer issues are resolved by financial services
providers directly with their customers. The FOS argued that research shows the
way in which financial services providers deal with problems when they occur is
crucial to gaining consumer trust and confidence.
The Australian Banker's Association (ABA) noted that small business
customers have access to IDR procedures with their bank. The ABA argued that in
many cases, the complaint will be resolved internally by the bank with no
further action required. If the dispute cannot be resolved expeditiously, the
small business customer is able to lodge the dispute with FOS.
Banks' operation of IDR procedures
ANZ informed the committee that it reported three breaches of the
internal dispute resolution requirements under the Code of Banking Practice to
the Code Compliance Monitoring Committee (CCMC) in 2014–15 and six in 2013–14.
Two of these breaches in 2014–15 were self-identified and one was raised with
ANZ by the CCMC. None of those breaches related to matters before this inquiry.
NAB informed the committee that it operates an independent service
called NAB Resolve, to work with customers who are in dispute with the bank.
NAB explained that:
We also have an area called NAB Assist which works with
customers who have impaired files. So customers that are facing hardship can
absolutely avail themselves of the services within NAB Assist. Should they have
an issue with the way in which a file is being managed, they can also work with
NAB Resolve to have that worked through in a different scenario if they are not
happy with the way in which that file has been resolved.
NAB Resolve is a separate function so it is a separate team
from my frontline team where the bankers work. It is a separate independent
function and has the ability and capacity to make decisions on any agreement
that might be reached with those customers that are in dispute.
The Commonwealth Bank's IDR procedures state that the bank will provide
a final response to the complaint within 45 days and that most complaints are
resolved within a few days.
In addition to its complaints handling procedures, Westpac has a
customer advocate service for complaints that are not properly resolved or
Self-reported breaches related to IDR and other matters
The committee noted with some concern results that the CCMC has
published based on self-reporting of breaches of the Banking Code of Practice
by banks. Under the CCMC Annual Compliance Statement program, banks are
required to self-report areas of non-compliance with the Banking Code of
Practice and share information with the CCMC about how they intend to improve
The figure below shows the number of self-reported breaches between 2004 and
2014. The CCMC also reported that for the 2014–15 financial year, there were
6558 self-reported breaches, an increase of 14 percent on the previous year.
Figure 3.1: Banks' self-reported breaches of the Banking
Code of Practice
Source: Code Compliance Monitoring Committee: 2013–14
Annual Report, p. 7.
Prior to the GFC, banks self-reported several hundred breaches of the
Banking Code of Practice per year. The number of breach reports has now grown
to 6000 to 7000 per year.
The CCMC reported that for internal dispute resolution in 2013–14, banks
self-reported 91 breaches of the relevant clauses of the Code.
In 2014–15 annual report the CCMC indicated that self-reported breaches of
internal dispute resolution obligations rose to 536, a 523 percent increase
relative to 2013–14. The CCMC reported that one bank accounted for 65 percent
of the 536 breaches.
In relation to complaints lodged by customers in 2013–14, banks recorded
1.1 million disputes in total, a year–on–year increase of 53 per cent. One
bank accounted for 73.8 per cent of all disputes recorded. The CCMC reported
that in total, banks recorded 1 226 093 complaints in 2014–15, an
11.5 per cent increase on the previous period.
The committee has not examined the breach reporting in further detail
and has not sought to identify the banks responsible for significant issues
relating to the total number of disputes and IDR. However, the figure and
discussion above indicate to the committee that problems exist with banks' IDR
procedures. These problems add weight to the committee's view that EDR schemes
need to be strengthened, as discussed later in this and the following chapter.
Issues raised by submitters about EDR schemes
This section summarises evidence provided by submitters in relation to
EDR schemes, including FOS. The issues raised relate to the jurisdiction of
FOS, the independence of FOS from the banks, the fragmentation of EDR schemes
and the inability of borrowers to use the court system.
The committee heard concerns about some matters falling outside the
jurisdiction of FOS for a variety of reasons including:
FOS making a determination that a matter is more appropriately
dealt with by the courts;
FOS upper limits on claim size and compensation amounts;
settlements with banks that preclude a customer from raising
disputes with FOS;
whether FOS has the necessary powers;
where other processes such as mediation had been used, FOS may
then be excluded from considering the matter.
A submitter alleged that the FOS is so severely restricted by its terms
of reference and the CCMC by its constitution
that the two organisations fail to investigate all but a very small percentage
of customer complaints.
The Tasmanian Small Business Council agreed with this assessment, and further
argued that a decision of the FOS cannot be challenged.
The committee considers issues related to the limits of FOS'
jurisdiction later in this chapter.
Suggestions for different
Several submitters and witnesses made suggestions to the committee on
how dispute resolution schemes could be improved. Legal Aid Queensland (LAQ)
argued that there is no way to enforce the bank to act fairly or reasonably,
although the mediation process does provide that the bank must act in good
faith, which is a different concept to fair and reasonable. LAQ suggested that
for an issue arising from any of those sorts of matters, it would be far more
powerful if there was an independent review:
Because of the financial limitations with people who are in
financial difficulties, clearly it is the role for FOS powers to be expanded to
investigate those particular issues. FOS has the knowledge and experience to
manage those types of matters and to make reasoned decisions binding on both
parties. If there was even that option available, I am sure it would be a
catalyst for the banks to act more fairly and reasonably in certain
A submitter suggested that external dispute resolution schemes are
fragmented and the legal system is not conducive to the borrower because of the
process and high cost:
The terms of reference of some industry bodies (such as FOS)
do not focus or allow for access by some category of borrowers. It is
recommended that an authority with power to resolve matters between the lender
and borrower be established with the fall back to the legal system. This
authority should be staffed by generalists, some with knowledge of law but
importantly persons that understand both sides of the lender/customer
relationship. The authority should be empowered to make the final decision on
disputes. Consolidation of current relative institutions should be considered.
A witness argued that all defaulted loans should go to an independent
tribunal, much like a tenant who cannot pay their rent:
...you go to a residential tenancy tribunal. They talk about it
and give the guy a bit more time and give you a few more months and they work
it through and hopefully resolve it. But with a small business guy, a bank can
move in and can not only kick him out of the house but will also take the house
and sell it, take his holiday house and sell it, take his cars and his
jewellery and all of his assets—all of that stuff. The bank will do all of that
and they will not even have sold the property that the loan is secured upon. I
am saying we need something like a residential tenancy tribunal so that when a
genuine event of default occurs, it gets referred to a third party who then
The Tasmanian Small Business Council suggested that the IDR procedure
and EDR scheme of the Australian banks should be reformed so that small
businesses, farmers, and individual customers can have complaints arbitrated
quickly, cheaply, and fairly.
Financial Ombudsman Service
The section discusses the FOS, its history, jurisdiction and functions
in relation to consumer protections.
The ABA explained to the committee that FOS was initiated in 1989,
following major inquiries into the banking system. The ABA indicated that the
objective was to provide customers with a free, easily accessible and simple
means of dealing with disputes with their banks. The ABA
That was the original banking ombudsman scheme—the Australian
banking industry ombudsman. It was later renamed the banking and financial
services ombudsman during 2000 or so, and it is now an aggregation of three
separate external dispute resolution schemes formed into one dispute resolution
scheme. It now covers general insurance and financial services matters like
financial advice and so forth.
As a condition of their licence, credit licensees must join an
ASIC-approved EDR scheme such as FOS and the CIO.
Treasury informed the committee that while determinations made by FOS
are binding on credit providers, FOS' decisions are not binding on the
complainant. As such, customers are free to seek recourse through the
court system should they be unhappy with the EDR process. Treasury indicated that there are no reforms to the consumer
credit laws currently being considered.
Disputes that FOS can consider
This section sets out some of the disputes that FOS can consider.
A financial services provider in possession of a borrower's property
must take reasonable care to sell the property for either its market value or
the best possible price. If FOS believes the financial services provider in a
dispute did not take reasonable care, FOS may award the borrower compensation
for any difference between the sale price and the market value of the property.
FOS considers that financial difficulty occurs when a consumer is
unexpectedly unable to meet their repayment obligations. This can be the result
of a variety of causes including accident, separation, death of a family
member, unexpected medical or funeral expense, reduction of work hours,
redundancy or a downturn in business.
When a consumer cannot make their loan repayments, they may claim their
financial services provider should not have given them the loan because they
never had the capacity to repay it. The consumer may lodge a dispute with FOS
seeking compensation for a loss resulting from provision of the loan. FOS
refers to this as a "responsible lending" dispute. When FOS considers
responsible lending disputes, FOS decides whether it was appropriate for the
financial services provider to enter into the loan.
The committee was informed that responsible lending issues also arose in
relation to how farm loans were originally negotiated, including the findings of
a study on regional farm debt that found that more than 20 per cent of respondents reported that bank
managers completed their budgets and offered loans larger than expected.
Disputes that FOS cannot consider
This section sets out the disputes that FOS cannot consider:
A receiver may have been appointed to a company before it lodged
a dispute with FOS. At law, a receiver acts as an agent of the company, not the
creditor who appointed the receiver. As the receiver is in control of the
company at the time of lodgement, the receiver must consent to the dispute
being lodged. Similarly, if a liquidator has been appointed, then the
liquidator's consent is required.
FOS can consider disputes where legal proceedings have been
issued by the financial services provider against the borrower, provided those
proceedings have not gone beyond lodging a defence and counterclaim. If they
have gone beyond that stage, FOS cannot consider the dispute.
If a borrower is a small business and one loan exceeds $2 million
FOS cannot consider the dispute as it is considered that a court could more
appropriately deal with the matter. The $2 million limit was introduced on
1 January 2015. Thirteen disputes lodged with FOS since that date, have
exceeded the limit and FOS has therefore not considered those disputes.
If legal proceedings have been issued and judgment obtained
before a dispute was lodged, FOS cannot consider the dispute. Any claim the
borrower had merges into the judgment. The borrower must apply to the court to
set aside the judgment. 
FOS can only consider a dispute where the amount of the claim
(the amount of loss) does not exceed $500 000. The maximum compensation
FOS can award is $309 000. The amount of loss is not necessarily the
amount of the loan, as often the borrower repays the principal and at least
Where a guarantor owes more than $309 000 and seeks to have
the guarantee set aside, a court is a more appropriate place to consider the
dispute. This is because a guarantee cannot be set aside in part. It is either
valid for the amount or it is not valid at all.
FOS cannot consider a dispute where FOS has already dealt with
the subject matter. For example if FOS issued a determination which the customer
did not accept, FOS will not look at a new dispute about the same matters.
FOS jurisdiction relation to small
business and commercial loans
This section summarises the jurisdiction of the FOS in relation to small
business and commercial loans.
ASIC informed the committee about limits on the application of EDR
schemes in relation to small business lending:
Because the National Credit Act does not apply to loans for
business purposes, lenders that do not provide consumer credit are not required
to hold an Australian credit license and are therefore not required to belong
to an EDR scheme. Where a lender is a member of an EDR scheme, whether on a
voluntary basis or because they provide regulated consumer credit, the EDR
scheme may consider small business disputes.
An EDR scheme's ability to consider small business disputes
relating to lending is not based on any legislative requirement but is limited
to the general consumer law, existing voluntary codes of industry practice and
by the monetary value of the claim.
The Senate Economics References Committee inquiry into the post-GFC
banking sector recommended that the terms of reference of FOS be amended so
that FOS may consider disputes from small business applicants where the value
of the claim is up to $2 million, and that the cap on the maximum compensation
that FOS can award be increased to $2 million when the dispute relates to small
The FOS informed the committee that when the Banking Code of Practice
was first introduced in 2003, the jurisdiction of the ombudsman's office was
increased to cover small business cases. When the National Consumer Credit
Protection Act 2009 commenced in 2010–11, FOS still had that broader
jurisdiction, even though the regulation does not cover it. If an organisation
joins FOS, their small business products are covered as well.
FOS is required to commission regular independent reviews of its
operations and procedures. The most recent review was conducted in 2013. The
2013 review of FOS noted that 5 per cent of disputes accepted by FOS were small
business disputes, primarily relating to credit and payment system disputes.
The review also noted that:
the disputes often relate to property development, with some
disputes about loans in excess of $5 million;
where it is clear that the claim (not the loan) is in excess of
$500 000 FOS will rule the matter outside its jurisdiction;
it is rare for FOS to exclude small business disputes using its
discretion to decide that the courts are more appropriate for the dispute; and
FOS has accepted disputes where farmers have rejected or
withdrawn from mediation process, except where mediation is legislatively
The 2013 review recommended that FOS should be more active in using its
jurisdiction to reject large complex commercial disputes and publish guidelines
about how it will use its discretion.
The review also led to recommendations focussed on the need for FOS to
increase the pace of its current efforts to eliminate dispute backlogs and
reshape its dispute processes to reduce the time taken to resolve new disputes.
Regulatory Guide 139 (RG 139) on approval and oversight of EDR schemes
sets the jurisdictional limit of approved EDR schemes at $500 000. ASIC
informed the committee that:
This limit is aligned to the retail client definition as set
out in the Corporations Act: s761G(7)(a) and regs 7.1.18–19. Approved schemes also operate a compensation
cap which is the maximum amount a scheme is able to award in compensation to a
retail client. Until 2012, the compensation cap for most complaints about
credit and financial services was $280,000. RG 139 requires that the
compensation cap be increased every 3 years. Therefore, on 1 January 2015, the
cap increased from $280,000 to $309,000.
RG 139 requires that EDR scheme coverage under the
Corporations Act and National Credit Act must be sufficient to deal with the
vast majority of consumer complaints or disputes in the relevant industry, up
to the jurisdictional limit of $500,000.
FOS informed the committee that it considers the 2013 Code of Banking
Practice to represent good industry practice and generally reflects the common
law obligations of financial services providers. Financial services providers
can subscribe to the code and, once they subscribe, they are required to comply
with the code.
ASIC informed the committee that it is intended that high value and
complex disputes of a more commercial character are excluded from the
jurisdiction of the schemes. The level at which jurisdictional limits and
compensation caps are set affects all industry participants providing financial
services to retail clients and will have particular implications for EDR scheme
members who require professional indemnity insurance to meet any claims.
The current FOS terms of reference now include an extensive list of over
20 exclusions from FOS's jurisdiction. As noted earlier, financial exclusions
include that FOS may not consider a dispute where the applicant's claim in the
dispute exceeds $500 000 or about debt recovery against a small business
for loans over $2 million. There are also limits for small business of 20
employees (or 100 for manufacturers).
FOS commented on how well banks contribute to resolving disputes, noting
that there had been improvements for retail and but not for small business
It depends on the institution. They all sort of go through
peaks and troughs—they get better at things and then they drop the ball. In
consumer cases involving financial hardship, banks and other financial services
providers have vastly improved the way they deal with their customers. That has
been driven by the code in the first instance and by the National Consumer
Credit Protection Act more recently. What we are not seeing is the same level
of improvement in relation to small business customers, yet the code obligation
still exists. Even though there is no regulation about assisting small business
customers in hardship, if you are a subscribing bank you do have that
obligation and it does form part of the contract.
FOS informed the committee that of the small business disputes relating
to credit (excluding credit card disputes) closed in the 2014–2015 financial
year, 11 were excluded because they exceeded the monetary limits noted above.
In eight of those disputes, the value of the claim exceeded $500 000 and
the remaining three disputes involved debt recovery and a credit facility of
over $2 million.
Industry views on the FOS
This section briefly summarises views put to the committee by banks and
the ABA about the jurisdiction of FOS.
Changes to the Banking Code of Practice in 2013 (the Code)
included a number of new provisions for small business lending. For example, banks
are now required to give small business borrowers a reasonable period of notice
(not less than 10 business days) in writing of a variation to terms and
conditions of a credit facility, including a revaluation
of the credit facility. The Code was revised to include
more details on how banks must help clients, both individual and business,
overcome financial difficulties through discussions and possible
In the former version of the Code,
banks could vary terms and conditions without providing written advice in
advance of the new terms and conditions taking effect. The Code previously did
not include detail on how to help clients experiencing financial difficulties.
ANZ indicated that it supported FOS as an independent dispute resolution
system for commercial loans, but not for large corporate clients. ANZ informed
the committee of its view on the distinction between small and medium
businesses and large corporate clients:
The definition of that would be: anyone borrowing up to $10
million to $20 million would be what I would call the small and medium
businesses. Anything beyond that, they are lawyered up. They have people who are
very capable professionals; they have their accountants...I would say above that
level you definitely have very capable people on the other side negotiating.
Westpac argued for the current FOS terms of reference to remain in
We think that the current level is sufficient and has the
right balance. We think that small businesses need more protection under this,
and we think that the levels that they are afforded—the Financial Ombudsman
Service, for example—at their level deal with the right size of customer to
deal with that fairly and efficiently. If we start including that for broader,
more well-resourced companies then I think that could get clogged and decrease
the efficiency of that organisation. We will from time to time agree to hear
matters outside of their limits where we think it is warranted. We have gone to
FOS for matters that are above their limit where that has been appropriate, or
where we have thought that is appropriate and the customer has agreed.
When questioned about expanding the jurisdiction of FOS, the ABA
responded by stating that:
We certainly do not have a formal position taken with our
members on consultation on that. The fundamental principle underpinning the
scheme was that it existed to deal with simple cases, disputes, that could be
dealt with fairly readily on a no-cost-to-the-customer basis for the dispute.
Where a review of the financial cap on the scheme goes, I guess it will need to
be measured against the principle that it is for relatively uncomplicated
matters. That is what the scheme was designed to do, and not necessarily to
replace other tribunals or the court system for the more complex matters which
perhaps are better dealt with by courts. We accept that there is an access to
justice issue in all of this.
The committee has formed the view that small business borrowers are
often just as vulnerable as residential borrowers as they may have been
required to provide their homes or personal guarantees as security for their
loans. The committee considers that the evidence in this inquiry demonstrates
that it is no longer sufficient for lenders to small business to be voluntary
members of EDR schemes. The committee therefore recommends that relevant
regulatory changes be introduced to require lenders to small business to
participate in an EDR scheme.
The committee acknowledges the Commonwealth government's announcement of
20 April 2016 of a review of FOS's small
business jurisdiction, monetary limits and compensation caps. The
committee also notes the ABA's announcement on 21 April 2016 that they
improved complaints handling and
better access to external dispute resolution, as well as providing compensation
to customers when needed; and
that the ABA support the
Commonwealth government's review of FOS.
The committee has recommended in chapter 2 the extension of responsible
lending provisions to cover small business loans, closing of other gaps in
coverage and a role for the ASBFE Ombudsman in leading and coordinating reforms
including the review of the jurisdictions of external dispute resolution
schemes including FOS.
This section discusses the time limits established by FOS' terms of
reference that apply to disputes being considered by FOS. Some submitters
raised concerns regarding FOS time limits.
Where a dispute relates to a variation of a credit contract as a result
of financial hardship, an unjust transaction or unconscionable interest and
other charges under the National Credit Code, FOS will not consider the dispute
unless it is lodged with FOS before the later of the following time limits:
- within two years of the date
when the credit contract is rescinded, discharged or otherwise comes to an end;
- where, prior to lodging the
dispute with FOS, the Applicant received an IDR Response in relation to the dispute
from the Financial Services Provider—within 2 years of the date of that IDR
In all other situations, FOS will not consider a dispute unless the dispute
is lodged with FOS before the earlier of the following time limits:
- within six years of the date
when the Applicant first became aware (or should reasonably have become aware)
that they suffered the loss; and
- where, prior to lodging the
dispute with FOS, the Applicant received an IDR Response in relation to the dispute
from the Financial Services Provider—within 2 years of the date of that IDR
However, FOS may still consider a dispute lodged after either of these
time limits if FOS considers that exceptional circumstances apply.
The 2013 FOS independent review found that in 2012–13 there were 133
disputes rejected on the basis that they were outside the time limits. The
review did not consider how many disputes were not raised because potential
applicants became aware that their circumstances were outside the time limits.
The review found that the timeframes should normally be sufficient, but that
FOS should report on how it exercises its discretion to allow 'out of time'
disputes to use a FOS service.
The committee notes however that the 2013 review did receive a joint
consumer submission raising concerns that the two year timeframe from the end
of the contract was quite limiting.
The committee discusses other EDR schemes and its recommendations for
EDR schemes in the next chapter.
Other issues raised by submitters
Level of independence from the banks
Many submitters suggested that FOS was not sufficiently independent from
raising allegations including:
current or former bank officers being seconded to FOS or having
other relationships with FOS which may lead to perceived conflicts of interest;
FOS ruling in favour of the banks because it is funded by the
The Tasmanian Small Business Council submitted that, in its view, in
many cases the FOS does its job acceptably, however, there are continuing
issues surrounding the independence of the FOS and its effectiveness in
resolving customer disputes.
FOS informed the committee that the requirements in ASIC Regulatory
Guide 139 ensure that FOS:
operates independent of industry;
acts impartially and fairly in its decision-making;
is governed by a board of directors, comprised of equal numbers
of consumer and industry directors and an independent chair;
reports regularly to its stakeholders and publicly on its
reports systemic issues and serious misconduct to ASIC; and
undertakes periodic independent reviews.
The FOS also informed the committee that:
...the Code of Banking Practice is not an approved code by the
ACCC or ASIC, under relevant legislation. It is a code that was introduced by
the banks themselves, and it sits above the legal requirements that are imposed
on financial services providers.
The code itself has a provision that, where there is a
requirement in the code that a bank needs to comply with that is greater than
the legal standard, they will comply with the code rather than the legal
standard, provided they do not get into a breach of the law if they do that.
The ANZ acknowledged that 'a common feature of the submissions is that
customers are looking for an independent review of their situation and avenues
FOS, CIO and CCMC funding
This section summarises the funding arrangements that are currently in
place for FOS, CIO and the CCMC.
FOS is funded by participating financial service providers through fees
including an application fee, an annual user levy based on the size of the
business and case fees for disputes handled by FOS.
CIO is also funded by participating financial service providers through fees
including application fees, an annual user levy based on the size of the
and service fees for complaints received by CIO.
The CCMC is funded by annual bank subscriptions.
The FOS informed the committee about the governance and funding arrangements
The funding of the service is by charging fees and levies to
the various financial services providers: banks, insurance companies,
superannuation funds, advisers—fees for services.
They are charged a levy based firstly on their size and then
a separate levy based on the number of cases they have had in the previous
year. Then, for each dispute that comes into the office they are charged a fee,
depending on where the case closes in our system. The longer it takes to
resolve and the further it goes, the greater the charge.
The committee notes that the funding arrangements that involve a levy
that is dependent on the number of cases being raised with FOS for each bank
provides an incentive for banks to follow good banking practices and where
disputes arise, to resolve them effectively through their IDR arrangements.
However from the evidence received from submitters and witnesses in this
inquiry, FOS, CIO and the CCMC are not generally perceived as being
sufficiently effective or independent from banks. Therefore the committee
suggests that the EDR bodies, the ABA and ASIC should:
develop greater cooperation and coordination of their activities
in relation to small business under the guidance of the ASBFE Ombudsman which
the committee is recommending elsewhere in the report to be the lead agency to
coordinate reforms for small business loans;
provide better communication to borrowers about the nature of the
existing funding models and how the system creates incentives for banks to
resolve customer disputes in a timely and effective manner; and
Explore the potential for the ASBFE Ombudsman as an independent
body to also take over the role of compliance reporting and enforcement once
the new ethical and professional standards are in place. This would allow the
de-funding of the CCMC and funds to be allocated to the ASBFEO.
Alternatives through the courts are
unaffordable and ineffective
This section summarises views put forward by submitters about the
difficulties associated with pursuing disputes with banks through the courts.
For disputes that are outside the jurisdiction of EDR schemes, such as
FOS, the committee heard that many customers were prevented from taking legal
action because they have lost control of their financial resources, or the cost
of legal action excludes all but the wealthiest borrowers.
In some cases the commercial nature of their business also rules out access to
low cost legal services or Legal Aid.
A number of submitters argued that the legal process is too costly for the
A witness informed the committee that he was unable to pursue legal
action because he had lost control of his financial assets:
First of all they send in the receivers who clean out all of
your assets and your cash resources so you do not have any money to fight. If
you survive that, then they go for bankruptcy.
A submitter argued that banks and their solicitors have perfected the
banks' commercial loan documentation to ensure that the bank's interests are
thoroughly protected. Mr McNamee suggested that:
The result of this is that an SME is unable to resist the
will of a bank even in a court of law.
The contractual balance of power between the bank and the
customer has moved so far in favour of the bank in recent years that it is
impossible for an SME to challenge a bank in court.
Another submitter suggested that any hope of legal redress or remedy has
been extinguished by settlement deeds and prohibitively expensive court
A submission argued that even if matters make it to court, often the
borrower has a significant disadvantage when they are against powerful
institutions such as banks.
Another submitter had a similar view:
The court system in Australia is closed to small businesses
and individuals attempting to compel banks to abide by their own Code and
regulations. The costs are prohibitive and the banks have vast resources at
Submitters also argued that the unaffordability of the court system for
addressing loan disputes was recognised by earlier inquiries into Australia's
financial system, including the Campbell and Martin inquiries.
The Tasmanian Small Business Council also argued that:
The concerns outlined by the Martin Committee that the
judicial system is unfairly weighted towards leading banks—whose resources far
outweigh small businesses, farmers, and individuals—is as true today as in
A receiver disputed these views arguing that courts are handling
disputes regarding loans well:
...the Court is already dealing with disputes that arise out of
LVR covenant breaches and should a bank or financial institution be accused of
using a constructive default (security revaluation) process to impair loans the
Court is the best place for such a determination to be made.
...the Court is a more than adequate forum for redress and
mediation and that further legislation in this matter may potentially hamstring
the ability of the Court to consider cases on their individual merits.
NAB noted that in some cases resources are available to challenge
relevant decisions of the banks. The liquidator of a company has access to the
Assetless Administration Fund and to litigation funding, so there is the
possibility for liquidators to pursue action against banks if they form the
view that the action is necessary, and NAB noted that there are examples of
liquidators who have done so.
The committee wishes to acknowledge the evidence put forward by
submitters in which there are many accounts of extreme financial hardship
arising from loan contracts that require the borrower to bear all the risk. The
power in the contracts is so skewed in favour of banks that the capacity of a
borrower to protect their rights is very limited. In addition, even if a
borrower can begin a legal case, their prospects of success are limited because
of the capacity of banks to 'deep-pocket', out-spend and out-wait the borrower.
Experiences in the UK
This section summarises allegations that have been made in the UK
regarding EDR schemes and the accessibility of courts for borrowers in disputes
The Tomlinson report alleged that in the UK there are many businesses
that have no effective avenue to raise disputes regarding practices of banks in
relation to loans. Tomlinson suggested that the internal dispute resolution
systems for some banks in the UK have been absent or ineffective:
The banks do have internal procedures for settling disputes.
Some of the evidence received for this report does suggest these are not
working effectively and the decisions made are not impartial within the bank...There
is no 'stoppage time' within the banks once a complaint has been made so the
activity which the bank is complaining about continues throughout.
Evidence was even submitted of instances where the individual
banker that the business has complained about has in fact run the internal
complaints procedure against themselves.
Rarely do these processes lead to an adequate resolution for
the business and it is apparent that they need an external, impartial body to
take a fair decision. However, the delays of going through this process mean
that the business is in an even weaker position once they seek external support.
The Tomlinson report suggested that the UK Financial Ombudsman Service
has claim, compensation and business size limits that rule out many businesses.
Mr Tomlinson argued that in the UK for businesses unable to access dispute
resolution services, there are significant impediments to using the courts to
raise their disputes with banks:
Once a business has been put into administration, the
business owner is no longer a director of the business and therefore unable to
pursue legal remedies – only the administrator can do this.
...there is much concern that the administrators often have
conflicts of interest and are in fact appointed by the bank, or at least on the
advice of the bank, meaning there is little incentive for them to initiate
legal proceedings. The business owner can then not take any action against what
has happened to them unless the bank brings a case against them, for example
calling in a personal guarantee, in which case the business can instigate a
counter claim. At this point, it is worth bearing in mind that the business
owner may be under serious financial strain as a result of the banks actions,
possibly having invested personal money into the business prior to its
collapse, meaning the cost of taking legal action is unaffordable for them.
Even if a small business or it owner(s) have resources to pursue a
matter through the courts, access to effective legal representation may still
be limited. The Tomlinson report noted that law firms that do business with
banks may have clauses in their contracts preventing them from taking action
As a result, the pool of lawyers available to advise and conduct cases for
small business is limited.
The UK Financial Conduct Authority has indicated that it is examining
the matters raised in the Tomlinson report and that it intends to report on its
findings later in 2016.
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