The conduct was…intimidatory and controlling…If that amounts to good banking practice, that is a very sorry misassessment by the banks of what commercial morality and indeed legality requires
The Court of Appeal has held that the Bank of Scotland is liable for harassment in making hundreds of calls to someone who exceeded her overdaft limit.
With the Information Commissioner taking recent robust action we all know that the making of unwanted calls by commercial organisations can be a breach of The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 and the Data Protection Act 1998.
However, a recent Court of Appeal judgment has held that this practice can also constitute harassment, even when the calls are made by one’s own bank, in pursuit of a debt.
In Roberts v Bank of Scotland the claimant – a valiant litigant in person – had sought and was awarded damages in the County Court in the sum of £7500, under section 3 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. The Bank appealed, both on liability and quantum, and I suspect they wish they hadn’t.
The claim was made after the Bank made 547 calls in little more than a year, arising from minor instances of exceeding overdraft limits. Ms Roberts did not want to speak to call centre operatives, and had apparently sought unsuccessfully to speak to her local branch manager. Many of the calls were intimidatory, albeit couched in polite language. Despite Ms Roberts repeatedly asking for them to cease, she was told the calls would continue.
The Appeal Court had no hesitation in dismissing the Bank’s appeal, and did so in extraordinarily disapproving terms.
This was, undoubtedly, a course of conduct which amounted to harassment and which the bank knew or ought to have known amounted to harassment:
…the bank’s conduct in the present case easily crosses the threshold. It was harassment which could have been prosecuted in the criminal courts. In the event, and fortunately for the bank, this matter simply comes before the civil courts as a claim for damages [¶45]… The bank must have been perfectly well aware of the phone calls which it was making [¶47]
and the Bank could not fall back on the fact that it was pursuing a debt – there were other ways to do this, given that Ms Roberts had repeatedly asked for calls to cease. Although initially “it made perfectly good sense for the bank to write to the claimant and also to telephone her” this did not mean that all future calls were legitimised
The existence of a debt…does not give the creditor the right to bombard the debtor with endless and repeated telephone calls. The debtor is fully entitled to say that he does not wish to talk to the creditor. In those circumstances, the creditor is thrown back upon his full legal remedies. That is what the courts are there to provide…the claimant made it abundantly plain that she did not wish to receive telephone calls from the bank. She was perfectly entitled to adopt this position. Once the bank had tried to telephone the claimant a few times and had received the same response on each occasion, it was obvious that telephoning the claimant would achieve nothing. Thereafter, there was no possible justification for continuing to ring the claimant up [¶32-33]
All three judges were clearly very unsympathetic to the Bank’s arguments. A selection of their asides:
If [counsel for the Bank] is right in saying that the only practicable means by which a bank can contact defaulting customers is the method adopted in this case, then banks had better build into their costings the damages which from time to time they will be called upon to pay to those customers.[¶50]
The conduct was, as the judge said, intimidatory and controlling. In short, it was, in my judgment, obviously unlawful harassment. If that amounts to good banking practice, that is a very sorry misassessment by the banks of what commercial morality and indeed legality requires [¶62]
The bank should respect the rule of law and therefore it should, in the light of the judgments of this court, revise its systems and desist from any tortious conduct, and not simply factor into its working and operating costs the fact that from time to time the bank will have to pay damages for harassment [¶65]
That last comment, and indeed the judgment as a whole, is pretty ominous for any organisation seeking to pursue and persuade debtors by a process of repeated phone calls (for which, now read “potential harassment”) when the recipient has asked them to desist. Lord Justice Jackson suspects his comments might be greeted with “derision in the boardrooms of the banks”: I suspect they may be also be greeted with consternation, and concern about the future of an element of banking practice which has effectively gone on unchecked for years. They would hardly have brought this appeal, over for what is for them a minute sum of money, unless they thought the case had wider implications which threatened their business practices.
They now will need to lick their wounds, and reconsider their approach to commercial morality and legality.
From this post on the excellent choptheknot blog it appears that similar principles were followed in another case involving the Bank of Scotland: Johnson v Bank of Scotland plc  All ER (D) 193