Sam Dunn: Give us our money or get taken to court

One reader who threatened to take her bank to court got £64 back in six weeks
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The Independent Online

So, in the second week of 2007, which of your brave New Year's resolutions are you still pursuing?

Perhaps the idea of jogging every workday at lunch has been quietly revised to Mondays and Thursdays only, or the blanket ban on chocolate bars temporarily lifted.

Or maybe that resolve to fight off the financial flab and overhaul your personal finances has weakened.

The application to switch your current account lies half filled and your hunt for a better- paying savings account or cheaper mortgage has got no further than a cursory glance at the "best buy" tables on page 22.

If your determination to sort out your finances has been stifled by the mid-January torpor, let me rouse you from the sofa - it looks as if the odds of a healthy financial return are stacked in your favour.

Changing the provider of your mortgage and credit card will produce the usual benefits of a cheaper deal. But you might also find that taking your bank on over punitive current account penalty fees reaps dividends too.

Over the next three months, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is analysing current account charges of up to £39 levied by banks and lenders, and will then announce whether these are fair - and if not, by how much they should be slashed.

The OFT's argument - rightly - rests on errant consumers being asked to pay a fine that reflects the true cost to the bank of their transgression.

It decided last year that credit card providers were unfairly levying penalty fees of around £25 for missed card repayments; £12 is now the limit.

If the OFT were to draw similar conclusions about current accounts, banks would lose another giant slice of income worth up to £4.7bn.

This is where you - and your renewed drive to shake up your finances - come in.

The spectre of the OFT investigation appears to have sparked a discernible change in attitude towards consumers at a handful of banks.

A number of readers report that their efforts to claim back high bank charges - as encouraged by, among others, the Which? consumer body - have met with astonishing, speedy success. One reader who threatened to take the bank to the small claims court, over a £25 charge from 2002, lodged her complaint only six weeks ago.

She received a cheque in the post last week for this amount plus interest (around £9) and a sum to cover the cost of the small claims court application (£30).

This result is not unusual.

Terrified of going to court - and facing the difficulty of proving to a judge that their charges are fair - many banks are instead prepared to "settle" the dispute quietly.

That it takes the threat of legal action to spur a bank into coughing up is no surprise, but it's a tactic that is yielding rewards for plenty of consumers.

Anybody objecting to the size of their current account charges, and who is prepared to invest the time and effort to take on their bank, should consider having a go: has plenty of useful information.

A sense of desperation is pervading banks over current account default charges.

Extra pressure was applied late last year by Walter Merricks, the Financial Ombudsman, who made noises about an investigation after noticing that banks were dealing with these complaints in an inconsistent way.

It's not often that banks find themselves vulnerable to consumers, so be bold and brash: it's time to get one back.

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