The first law firm in Australia to specialise in recovering compensation for consumers and businesses over unfair charging by financial institutions has been inundated with claims, managing director James Middleweek told Lawyers Weekly.
The Perth-based firm, Financial Redress, started up in March and currently covers two areas - bank and credit card penalty charges and exit fees from mortgages.
Middleweek said the firm was entering into a challenging market
"The challenges are obviously [that] when you take on banks in a market that is worth $5 billion of money that they are holding, [then] they are naturally tough opponents. It's not for the faint-hearted," he said.
"I think most people know that what the banks have done with these penalty charges is grossly unfair. We also believe the money they have taken is legally unenforceable. The challenge is to get it back for people."
Being able to contribute something that will benefit society is also a nice thing, added Middleweek.
"I think the climate, unfortunately, is right for a business like ours. I say unfortunately because people are having harder times and it's forced them to look at these charges but when the average penalty fee claim is around $2000, in the grand scheme of big-hitting city law firms, $2000 is nothing," he said.
"But it's a much bigger claim than you might think [because] we've got hundreds, approaching thousands, of claims so we think the key is to have good processes, a good online registration system, the ability to handle volume efficiently and being right on the key legal premises behind whatever product line we go into - those are really the key parameters."
Middleweek, who hails from the UK, also welcomes the new unfair contract laws that will come into force next year and said he believed it would bring a profound change.
"There has been an unfair contracts term act in the UK for the last 20 years and it's long overdue [in Australia] but extremely welcome. This legislation has been fast-tracked by the current Government and is due to come in in January, and it will start to at least particularly re-tilt the scales, if you like, a little back towards the customer," he said.
"I also believe that with the new unfair contracts term act coming in next year there will be many more opportunities to tackle banks and insurers where there are instances of unfair contract terms - so the constraint that this business has is simply the ability to attract entrepreneurial legal talent."
The legal director of the firm recently returned to Sydney, after moving to Perth for three to four months to help establish the firm, says Middleweek, but the practice has had trouble attracting other lawyers.
"I mean that has been the only frustration - we would like, in terms of our expansion ... to recruit more lawyers. We think the whole area of financial consumer business compensation for mis-selling and unfair charging is an unexploited, unlooked at area," he said.
"What I look for is people who want to go out and actually find new areas, have a bit of sympathy for the underdog and give it a good go - and sometimes those aren't always characteristics you find in the current generation. But a lawyer who is an entrepreneur is a very powerful weapon."
- Sarah Sharples