Australian bank customers scored a major win in a class action against top lenders Thursday, with the nation's highest court ruling they could challenge a wide range of fees as excessive.
The High Court of Australia found in favour of the 38,000 customers of the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) fighting back against the fees, overturning an earlier ruling limiting the case to credit card charges.
The Federal Court ruled in December that only four classes of fees falling under ANZ's late payment schedule relating to credit cards merited being characterised as a "penalty" that could be contested in court.
But the High Court ruled that a wider suite of charges including for overdrafts, late and non-payments, overdrawn accounts and dishonour fees were capable of being tested in the case.
"The fact that the honour, dishonour, non-payment and over-limit fees were not payable for breach of contract did not prevent them from being characterised as penalties," the High Court said.
"It will be for the Federal Court on the further hearing of the matter to decide whether these exception fees are penalties."
The case is believed to be Australia's largest ever class action, involving 170,000 customers attempting to recover Aus$220 million (US$225 million) in "excessive" fees from eight major lenders.
ANZ, the country's third-largest bank, is the lead defendant.
Andrew Watson, lawyer representing the customers, said the win was an "important point of law which has expanded the doctrine of penalties so that the courts will now focus on the reality of these sorts of fees".
"We say the fees are excessive and extravagant, far beyond the actual cost of administration to the banks," Watson said.
IMF Australia, a publicly-listed litigation fund paying for the case, said the onus "is now firmly on ANZ, and the other banks, to show how fees of typically $30-35 can be justified when a customer is a dollar over or a day late settling an account".
ANZ chief Phillip Chronican said the ruling had simply returned the case to square one and the bank would continue to vigorously defend itself against the claims.
"We saw last December's decision as one that narrowed the case and therefore held out the prospect of getting a much speedier resolution," Chronican told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"What this does is basically reopen the position back to where we were prior to December last year."