Walls v Santanders UK PLC

A recent decision by Sheriff Cubie at Glasgow has destroyed any hope that Scottish bank customers will be able to use the small claims procedure to reclaim bank charges.

The fatal blow which prevents litigants using the procedure arose after the Sheriff agreed the case should be remitted to ordinary cause procedure due to it complexity.

Mrs Walls had raised an action using the small claims procedure to reclaim £3,000 of bank charges. Small claims procedure in Scotland allows litigants to claim up to £3,000 in the sheriff court, but importantly protects them should they be unsuccessful. Where the claim is for under £200, the fee for raising the action is £15. Where it is for more it is only £60. Even if the consumer is unsuccessful and expenses are awarded against them, where the claim is for more than £200, expenses are limited to £150 where the claim was for £1,500 or less and 10% of anything above that. This means normally a consumer risks only incurring expenses of £300.

However, by allowing the case to be remitted to ordinary cause, expenses can be unlimited meaning a consumer who raises an action for £3,000 could be faced with expenses of £10,000 or more where unsuccessful, particularly as the banks tend to be using senior counsel in such cases.

For many the risks in such cases will clearly be too high for consumers to risk raising such actions unless they have access to legal aid.

What is more worrying about this development is the banks are claiming the revised arguments used in such cases by Mike Daily, the principal solicitor of Govan Law Centre, which concerns amongst others the unfair relationship test, are too complex to be heard using the small claims procedure. This argument has been deployed after obiter comments by judges in the recent Supreme Court test case on bank charges. It was suggested although charges cannot be challenged on the basis of the level of the charges, they may still be challengeable by reference to the relationship between the lenders and borrowers.

The unfair relationship test was a new legal test introduced into the Consumer Credit Act 1974 by the Consumer Credit Act 2006. Its introduction was specifically to replace the extortionate credit test which had over 30 years prove to ineffective as a remedy to protect consumers.

There is now a suggestion, however, by Sheriff Cubie that it may not be appropriate to use small claims procedure when using the unfair relationship test due to its complexity. This could effectively deny Scottish consumers from not only raising actions to reclaim bank charges unless they can access legal aid, but also may eventually prevent them from being able to use the important unfair relationship test under the small claims procedure.

The implications of this decision to remit the case to ordinary cause, which Mike Daily had challenged on the grounds that it was a breach of Article 6(1) of the European Convention of Human Rights (right to a fair hearing), is that any wealthy defender may by forwarding spurious, but complex legal arguments deny consumers access to a fair hearing by remitting the case to the ordinary cause procedure. Although, it could be argued litigants will still have access to a fair hearing, if the risks of the costs heavily outweigh the amounts being claimed, most litigants will not raise actions. Some would argue banks are cynically betting on this. The result is the merits of the banks defence has still to be decided and are unlikely to be in this case as Mrs Walls has already indicated she will unlikely continue with the claim.

Furthermore, such tactics could also be used by banks whenever they raise actions against debtors for payment of money and the debtor intends to defend the action. The result: to frustrate debtor attempts to deny their liability for such debts.

Mike Daily has called for changes in the court rules so that when any action is raised in small claims, the rules relating to expenses should follow the action even if remitted to ordinary cause. Importantly, however, if there is an attempt to exclude the use of the unfair relationship test in small claim actions, then arguably the summary and ordinary cause rules should be altered to ensure regardless of what procedure  is used to raise an action, the level of expenses even in these actions should be restricted by the amount the action is for.

Anything less will leave scottish consumers exposed and vulnerable to spurious claims for money by wealthy creditors.

Mike Daily has now applied to appeal the decision of Walls v Santander UK PLC to the European Court of Human Rights.

However, despite the rejoicing of many creditors and recovery lawyers, Mike Daily has another bank charges case still in the courts. In the case of Sharp v Bank of Scotland, the consumer raising the action is entitled to legal aid and its likely the cases will be heard later this year and the merits of the banks defences will be considered.

The tragedy, however, will be even if Sharp is successful in reclaiming her bank charges, unless the court rules are changed, many consumers not entitled to legal aid, will be denied access to justice.

For more info see Govan Law Centre.