BY KAYODE TOKEDE, Lagos
As a result of increased legal actions filed against commercial banks by customers, 12 of the financial institutions were forced to settle some cases in court, leading to N1.6trillion spent for litigations in 2016.
Findings by LEADERSHIP showed this is against N1.8 trillion reported by the 12 commercial banks in 2015.
It was learnt that in the course of doing business in 2016, bank customers filed different law suits against 12 commercial banks in an estimated compensation of N1.6 trillion slammed on the banks for various offenses relating to alleged errors, omissions and breaches.
Bank customers as well as bankers in the country also lose billions of Naira as result of engaging lawyers who lack depth in banks and customers dispute jurisprudence.
Some of these suits are being vigorously contested in courts across the country as some commercial banks are already making excess provisions.
Investigation by our correspondent revealed that most cases against leading commercial banks skyrocketed in 2016 as against the previous year, following involvement of commercial banks in unsolicited practices.
Further investigation revealed that bank customers and commercial banks do involve Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) in some of these law suits when negotiations go wrong.
The leading commercial banks were involved in N1 trillion customers’ litigation suits in the course of ordinary business in 2016, an increase of 0.4 per cent over that of 2015.
The banks are Zenith Bank Plc and Guaranty Trust Bank Plc.
According to LEADERSHIP findings, litigations by customers of Guaranty Trust Bank is estimated at N505.4 billion in 2016, while that of Zenith Bank is estimated at N18.3 billion in 2016.
The commercial banks were involved in 1235 litigation suits in the course of doing business in 2016, an increase of 8.7 per cent from 1136 litigation suits in 2015.
Of these banks, Guaranty Trust Bank was involved in 263 cases as a plaintiff in the year under review as against 180 cases in prior year.
The bank stated that total amount claimed in the 263 cases instituted is N72.9 billion as against N49.6 billion in 2015.
The financial institution said, “The solicitors of the Bank are of the view that the probable liability which may arise from the cases pending against the Bank is not likely to exceed N139 million in 2016 from N109.78 million in 2015”.
First Bank of Nigeria Holdings Plc’s customers’ legal action provision is estimated at N2.91 billion, while Access Bank, the smallest bank in the big banks category had N614million provision for claims and litigation.
Investigation also revealed that customers of four commercial banks were hurting for N574.77 billion compensation in 2016 as against N780.35 billion in 2015.
Of these four banks, Diamond Bank Plc’s total amount claimed in the 614 cases instituted against the Bank was N211.9 billion; Stanbic IBTC Holdings, N158 billion; Union Bank Of Nigeria Plc, N152.96 billion and FCMB Group Plc, N51.87 billion, all in 2016.
Following claims by these banks customers, two out of four commercial banks’ total provision is estimated at N3.29 billion in 2016.
However, these four commercial banks also instituted N214 billion cases against customers in 2016 from N70 billion in 2015, to highlight increased dispute between banks and customers.
Others are Wema Bank; N15 billion; Fidelity Bank Plc, N3.96 billion and Sterling Bank Plc, N295 million litigation claims in 2016 respectively.
Experts said disputes between commercial bankers and their customers, whether savers or borrowers, are inevitable like in any other commercial contractual transactions, due to risk factors that are not the focus of this legal enlightenment.
According to experts, some of these disputes will, of course, be resolved at customer care desks or via emails or phone calls, while some will end up in the court of law for adjudication.
Speaking with LEADERSHIP during the weekend, Barrister Rafiu Bello, said customers going to court must understand financial laws that guide against dealing with commercial banks.
He said over the years, commercial banks and customers engage in dispute when there is increase on interest rates.
Bello said, “When there is change in interest rate by Central Bank of Nigeria, commercial bank and customers do have misunderstanding- It is a contract matter related issue.
“Usually, both parties do state the interest rate that is applicable. For a customer, after consulting a chartered accountant or a forensic expert that discovered that a bank has charged over the applicable interest rate, they sue the commercial bank for bridge of contract.
“Although this interest rate vary according to CBN directive, CBN from time to time change the rate. The rate on loans does change and for banks to change the rate, they must inform their customers, a provision in that contract that is subject to CBN rate.
He continued: “If the provision was not stated in that contract, banks often increase rate on loans granted to their customers. Also, it is not enough that CBN has recommended on new regulation on changing rate before a commercial bank can apply it. They must write their customers.
“Most commercial banks take these changes for granted. Unsuspecting bank customers run into over charges and over blotted interest rate because of changes in interest rate. If they do not consult, most commercial banks get away with these things.”
He urged bank customers to involve banking lawyers before accessing loans from commercial banks to avoid litigations.
His words: “From the inception of the transactions, it is always good for bank customers to consult expert before accessing loans from commercial banks. It is always good for bank customers to seek protection in the offer letter before signing any deal with commercial banks.
“Sometimes, the interest rate drops and banks will not apply the new rate but apply the rate if it goes higher without notifying customers. That is why it is important for bank customers to get a lawyer that understands banking law. It is less expensive paying a lawyer at that point but expensive when an attempt is made in suing a bank”.
Commenting further, the former second Vice President of Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Adekunle Ojo, said, “In every contracts, there are bound to be breaches. Customers’ relationship with commercial banks might go as unanticipated.
“Bank customers are getting awareness unlike before. They are asking questions of access charges by commercial banks. It is a good development that bank customers are seeking redress through the court”.