The Consumer Affairs Commission (CAC) and the National Consumers League (NCL) have proposed a code of conduct for banking services which I consider fair. The code is written in simple language. The Jamaica Bankers Association (JBA) has drafted its own code of conduct which is now being reviewed by the Bank of Jamaica. The public is now anxiously awaiting the bankers' code to compare it with that of the CAC and NCL. It could be that both codes will have to be integrated because it makes no sense in having two codes.
For too long Jamaican depositors have suffered because of the absence of a code of conduct for banking services. The banks have been unreasonable as they sought to multiply their profits. No other financial institution moved their profits to the level of the commercial banks, and customers have very little say or enjoy much transparency.
I have had my own problems with banks. Recently, I drew a check to a pharmacy. The cheque was returned because, according to the bank, the words and figures were different in terms of cents. I took the cheque to three other banks and they could not see any difference. The bank charged me $8,300. A complaint was made to the bank, but its response was not definitive. The problem is that there is no independent institution to which the customer can complain and ask for redress.
The CAC and NCL have proposed under the breach of code of conduct clause that upon receipt of a complaint relating to a bank's breach of the provisions of the code, the following procedure will be observed:
*The consumers or their representatives, CAC or the NLC, will formally advise the bank of the notification alleging a breach
*The bank will investigate the complaint, and will reply to the consumer or their representatives, CAC or the NCL, within five business days from the receipt of complaint
*In the event that the consumer has suffered financially from the breach the offending bank will compensate the consumer accordingly
*In the event that the breach is not rectified satisfactorily, within a 14-day period, the CAC or the NCL may publish the circumstances of the complaint together with the names of the offending bank.
The banks will not like this.
I think it would be better if complaints are made to one body. The CAC and the NCL could set up one unit to which all complaints are directed.
An interesting recommendation has to do with terms and contract format. The proposed code says contracts shall be fair and set out both parties' rights and responsibilities in plain and simple language, legal and technical terms should only be used if necessary and explained accordingly. The consumer shall be provided with a copy of the terms and conditions and/or the contract relating to the service being inquired into, and shall be given the option to retain a copy for review. Where terms and conditions are typed, they shall be in prints that are legible and visible,
The following, where, applicable, shall be included in the terms and conditions which the consumer will have the right to review in detail before engaging any service of the banks:
*applicable ongoing fees and charges
*additional fees and charges that may arise
*the method by which interest, if any, is calculated and the frequency with which it will be credited or debited
*the number of instalments that the consumer must pay, their frequency and the amount due
*the manner in which the consumer will be notified of changes to the terms and conditions, interest rate and other fees and charges
*whether more than one interest rate may apply
*any minimum balance requirement or restriction on depositing or withdrawing from an account.
All existing terms and conditions/contracts shall be posted on the website of the bank and samples made available in branches. Contract terms cannot be changed unilaterally by the bank and if any change is to be introduced, the customers should be informed at least 60 days before the changes are to take effect.
The code carries some key commitments. For example, in the area of non-discriminatory access, the code says that all consumers have equal right of access to all services provided by banking institutions, providing the consumer meets the institution's requirements of access to the service being applied for. In keeping with the commitment, the banks will ensure accessibility to all services in a reasonable, consistent, ethical, non-discriminatory, and fair manner.
The code says that banks will display service standards at the branches and on the website, and make copies available on request which will include, but not limited to the following areas: average wait times in banking halls, response times to complaints or queries and turn around time. I find service at some banks very slow. One has to spend as much as 45 minutes for service, especially on Friday.
There are special provisions in the code for elderly, disabled and pregnant customers. It says banks shall recognise the needs of elderly customers, pregnant women and customers with disabilities to have access to transaction services and will take reasonable measures to enhance the access to those services. Some banks are already doing this. For example, the National Commercial Bank at various branches has special cashiers for senior citizens as well as seats.
Transparency in the banking services has been greatly lacking in Jamaica and customers are at the mercy of the banks. Emphasis on transparency has been placed in the code of conduct. I have dealt only with some of the conditions laid down in the code. There are many more conditions.