Few things make my blood boil like those maggoty-sacks-of-offal who prey on the vulnerable. Volunteering at the Māngere Community Law Centre many years ago (via the Russell McVeagh programme) introduced me to all manner of sharks in our midst. I’m thinking of the pay-day lenders with their punitive interest rates and nasty default clauses. And the car dealers who sell lemons at high interest rates to people who can’t afford them – then when the car breaks down and repayments are missed, they repossess the car, re-sell it, and the cycle of misery begins again.
High up on my list are those mobile sales trucks filled with over-priced, high interest-bearing consumer goods that target poorer areas. Which is why it is so blimmin’ fantastic to see the High Court using the new unfair consumer contract provisions of the Fair Trading Act to rein in a large mobile trader, Home Direct Limited.
Home Direct sells goods on credit via a “Lifestyle Account”, into which customers pay automatic weekly or fortnightly instalments. Monthly account management fees are charged, plus interest at 25.5%. One major fish hook is the fact that even after the cost of the goods plus interest is fully repaid, Home Direct continues to debit regular amounts from a customer’s bank account, up to a certain level. Those additional payments are called “voucher entitlements” (though no vouchers are issued) and can only be used to make future purchases from Home Direct. Customers don’t earn any interest on their money that is sitting in Home Direct’s account, nor can they have it refunded or exchanged for cash. Worst of all, the money “expires” after 12 months – i.e. it becomes the property of Home Direct. In total, $644,000 of expired payments had been forfeited to Home Direct under this scheme, and thousands of customers were caught in a never-ending web of automatic payments.
The High Court found (by consent) that this arrangement amounted to an unfair standard-form consumer contract, which fell within the ambit of the new Fair Trading Act provisions. Accordingly, Home Direct cannot now rely on its contractual terms if customers seek to use, or request refunds of, their voucher entitlements.
So now the challenge is to try and publicise this decision to alert as many people as possible of their rights to seek refunds. (It does seem to be a failing of the Act that a defendant cannot be required to provide this information.) I’m sure the refunds will be a welcome pre-Christmas windfall for many families. Please help spread the word if you you are linked into any appropriate networks.
And on that note, I hope that the Christmas break is filled with many unexpected pleasures – if not financial windfalls – for you all. Blog services resume in February 2020!