Stakeholders have criticised attempts by the Central bank of Nigeria (CBN) to put a time frame within which bank customers can bring in complaints of overcharging and claim of refund.
Contrary to Sections 57 (1)(a) & (b) and Section 58 of the Limitation Act, which provide that time does not begin to run in the case of fraud or mistake of the defendant, until the plaintiff has discovered the fraud or mistake, CBN’s six-year time-limit for complaints and claim of refund for overcharging implies that except bank customers discover the fraud or mistake of banks in not complying with their obligations and overcharging their customers within six years, the bank customer will lose its right to complain and the bank can keep the money overcharged the customer.
Responding to newspaper publications that the apex bank has fixed time limits within which to resolve complaints by customers relating to certain charges considered excessive, stakeholders in the banking sector including some major depositors and bank customers who asked not to be identified for fear of victimization, said such a directive, in addition to its being illegal, would amount to the regulator aiding banks to fleece customers.
Mr. Gbadebo Olatokunbo, a leading investors’ rights activist, said the apex bank should not place any time limit as this would amount aiding the banks to shortchange the customers.
“The issue of time limit should not be there as most bank customers don’t even know when the banks are overcharging and deducting their money. Putting any time limit is uncalled for; once a customer discovered overcharging or excessive deduction, then the customer should be able to get refund no matter how long, even if it is 12 years,” Olatokunbo said.
He related a personal experience with a bank that deducted certain charges from a retirees’ group account where he was a member, without any previous consent from the group.
Mr Adeleke Abayomi, a customer of a top-five bank, said the time limit was a disservice to banks’ customers noting that the complainants should be able to get refund in as much as the offending bank is still operational.
Other stakeholders argued that when any bank unlawfully debits the customer’s account and takes away money thereby depriving the customer the use of it, it amounts to stealing, stressing that the action amounted to an economic crime that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), should investigate.
They pointed out that when these unlawful actions are perpetrated by banks with the connivance of government officials at a particular time, “for any pecuniary benefit of such government officials, it will amount to aiding and abetting a crime.
“Therefore setting a time limit like CBN has done is really dangerous and it will shelter, encourage and protect the perpetrators of these crimes – bankers and government officials – because we all know that some elected officials have two terms of four years each, that is eight years. Therefore an elected official may connive with bank officials to fleece the government confers with excessive charges on facilities (shared with the bank) in the first two-years of his tenure, knowing that his immunity will cover him during his tenure and when he has left office and his immunity has expired, CBN’s time limit will continue his protection.
They said the cases over which the CBN is interfering, or seeks to be legislating, such as excess interest charges; excess management fees charges; excess Team Loan Repayment charges; fees charged above Bankers tariffs; excess charges on restructured team loans; excess penal interest charges and excess COT charges, among others, amount to civil wrongs, criminal offences and constitutional breaches of the rights of their customers, which are already covered and addressed in the Constitution.
As they put stated, “it is a civil wrong and amounts to breach of contract if these charges are not in accordance with the terms of the facilities granted the customer. It is criminal in many ways as it amounts to an offence of stealing under the Criminal Code Cap C38 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria,” pointing out that a person who fraudulently takes anything capable of being stolen, or fraudulently converts to his own use or to the use of any other person anything capable of being stolen, is said to steal that thing.
And in the case of money, it is sufficient if the intent is to use it at the will of the person who takes or converts it although he may intend afterwards to repay the amount to the owner.
The stakeholders argued that no one can be dispossessed of his property, including money – without due process. “Therefore if any bank has unlawfully debited into a customer’s account some millions or billions of naira, the customer has the right to complain under Section 44 of the Constitution and CBN has no right to limit when the complaint can be made, as CBN is not the National Assembly nor a State Assembly”.
They said: “The CBN is a creation of statute, the CBN Act. It can only exercise powers granted to it under that Act and under the Banks and Other Financial Institutions Act. These statutes give the CBN limited powers to issue subsidiary legislations to regulate banks. This right does not include right to limit the rights of Companies and individuals who are customers of banks, stressing that their rights are more than banking rights.
Citing decided cases, the stakeholders said: “Where the acts complained about are continuous acts – for instance where the bank made more than one unlawful debit to the customer’s accounts – the time limit do not apply or better still, starts to count on the date of the last debit”.
“Where the injury complained of is a continuing one, time does not begin to run for the purpose of the application of a limitation law until the cessation of the event leading to the cause of action. In other words, “continuance of injury” means the continuance or repeat of the act which caused the injury.”
Stakeholders call on President Buhari to direct CBN to withdraw this circular in the overall interest of the banking public and pursuant to the President’s fight against corruption and impunity.
“CBN should not be seen or perceived to be protecting banks against their customers. And many banks don’t need this support as they simply do not over charge their customers. CBN should hold the banks accountable to CBN, their customers and the Nigerian state,” they argued.