Bundaberg cane grower Ronald Feierabend has had a heart attack, a cancer diagnosis and lost his father during his long-running fight with his bank and now he’s on the brink of losing his farm.
- Mediation and internal customer advocacy have failed to settle the long-standing dispute between Mr Feierabend and Suncorp Bank
- Advocates say thousands of cases raised at the Royal Commission are still unresolved
- In line with legislation, the Australian Financial Complaints Authority is under review
Mr Feierabend said he was in the process of refinancing his loan after flooding in 2013 when he noticed the budgets the bank was relying on to estimate his farm’s profitability were different to the ones he supplied.
It overstated his profits and understated his losses.
Attempts to resolve the matter have failed and it is now headed for a showdown in the Supreme Court.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been to mediation twice, we’ve been through the customer advocacy at Suncorp Bank,” Mr Feierabend said.
“Both CEOs have said there is nothing wrong with their dealings.”
Suncorp Bank would not comment on Mr Feierabend’s case for privacy reasons, but in a statement a spokesperson said the bank was committed to working with its customers.
“When a customer is unable to meet their financial commitments we explore all available options often over many years to assist, including taking into consideration compassionate circumstances,” the statement said.
“However, in instances where financial circumstances cannot be resolved, it can be necessary to take the appropriate actions to settle their arrangements.”
Royal Commission hopes dashed
Mr Feierabend accused the bank of pushing to evict him from the farm, even while he dealt with health issues and the death of his father.
“There’s been a lot of things that have happened,” he said.
“We’ve had coronavirus, I’ve had a death in the family … serving Supreme Court documents on my birthday, I’ve been diagnosed with cancer myself.
Mr Feierabend said he had hoped the recent Royal Commission into the banking sector would make getting a settlement easier, but he said there had been little movement on legacy cases like his.
“If anything, when I talk to other people who deal with other banks, it is sliding back to where it was before the Royal Commission, if not worse,” he said.
The Suncorp Bank spokesperson said the bank worked within all legislative requirements and best practice, including the Banking Code of Banking Practice.
“As a bank with strong roots in Queensland and agribusiness, we understand how challenging financial issues can be and are committed to working with and supporting our customers,” the spokesperson said.
Suncorp urged customers who were unhappy with the process to lodge a complaint with the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA).
Losing faith in AFCA
AFCA was formed two years ago to handle complaints that would have previously been handled by the Financial Ombudsman Service, the Credit and Investments Ombudsman and the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal.
Craig Caulfield co-founded a group called Bank Warriors to advocate for customers caught up in a dispute with a financial institution.
Mr Caulfield said there were thousands of unresolved legacy cases like Mr Feierabend’s.
“The Royal Commission had 10,000 submissions and only 27 of those people got to ventilate their case,” he said.
“So, you can imagine there’s still 10,000-odd people who have had misconduct or malfeasance or detriment caused to them and their case hasn’t been ventilated.
“AFCA’s not really a genuine option … if it’s a small claim AFCA’s very good, but we’re talking claims under $10,000 — often farmers’ claims can mount to $1 million or more.”
Call for ‘equity of arms’
Mr Caulfield called for the introduction of an ‘equity of arms’ in disputes, which would require banks to provide equal funding and legal expertise to the complainants and for complainants to only accept a settlement if the outcome was in their favour.
“Going to court is not a genuine option because most people who are in a serious dispute with a bank don’t have the money to fight,” he said.
“Where they are settled, either they’ve had some media or publicity that the banks want to avoid or they’ve been able to access legal expertise — they’ve found the funds to be able to put up a big fighting fund and the banks have had to take them seriously.”
AFCA is now under review by the Federal government, as required by legislation, with a report due by the end of June.
Mr Caulfield has urged the government to make changes.
“We need a new body.”
AFCA under review
AFCA welcomed the review of its functions and performance and said the establishment of the authority represented significant reform of financial services complaints resolution in Australia.
A spokesman for AFCA said the authority was an independent and impartial ombudsman that worked with both industry and complainants, starting with conciliation and mediation.
“AFCA tries to resolve complaints in the most fair, effective and efficient way possible,” the spokesman said.
“Our people are skilled at assisting complainants and financial firms with our external dispute resolution process.”
The spokesman said AFCA had issued decisions in legacy cases, and complainants who were dissatisfied with the process could register it with the Independent Assessor.
Chief Ombudsman and chief executive David Locke said he was proud of what AFCA had achieved in its two years of operation.