MELBOURNE (AFP) - Australia's largest ever consumer class action in which bank customers are fighting for the return of more than A$240 million ($$274 million) in fees began in Melbourne on Monday.
Law firm Maurice Blackburn is representing some 43,500 ANZ Bank customers who believe a wide range of charges they paid were excessive, in the first of several trials planned as part of the case.
Their lawyers argue the honour, dishonour, late payment and over-limit fees - usually a A$25 to A$35 charge - were exorbitant, unfair penalties rather than fees for services and no reflection of what it cost the banks to deal with.
"So you might be a dollar over on your account or a day late in your payment and the banks will slug you with a fee that's out of all proportion to what it costs them for that minor transgression," Maurice Blackburn's Mr Andrew Watson said. "It's time for ANZ Bank customers to have their day in court."
ANZ, the country's third-largest bank, is the first of eight major lenders to go to trial as part of the case, which involves more than 185,000 customers who are attempting to recover the "excessive" fees.
The charges, which for some banks were as high as A$60, often left customers out of pocket hundreds of dollars over the six years up to 2010.
"The fact that the banks have dropped some of their charges is a good thing and to be welcomed, but even then, some of those fees are still too high and are still the subject of this action," Mr Watson said.
Monday's Federal Court action follows a ruling by the nation's highest court in September that consumers could challenge a wide range of fees, overturning an earlier lower court ruling that limited the case to credit card charges.
The class actions are being funded by Bentham IMF (Australia), a publicly listed litigation fund, which has said the case is the world's largest class action in terms of participation.
"We have currently filed against eight major lending institutions, starting with ANZ, and if we're successful against ANZ then the same principles will be highly influential upon those other cases," Mr Watson said in a statement.
The ANZ Bank has the highest number of customers involved in the class action and is expected to vigorously defend itself, claiming it was entitled to impose fees on customers. The other banks involved are BankSA, Bankwest, Citibank, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Australia Bank, St George and Westpac.