BENDIGO Bank’s reputation will take a hit in the wake of the Fincorp collapse, according to a leading expert.
While the bank put on a bold face and hunkered down this week, prominent lawyer and academic Ian Ramsay called the decision by the bank to settle a class action case involving failed property investors Fincorp a “hard lesson”.
“It’s important for a number of reasons,” the Professor of Commercial Law and director of the Centre for Corporate Law at the University of Melbourne said.
“It is a significant cost in monetary terms but also reputation.”
The bank’s Sandhurst Trustees took on Fincorp Investments as a client in early 2004, putting their weight behind a company which collapsed three years later, owing $200 million to investors.
For their fee as trustees, Sandhurst were legally obliged, under the Corporations Act 2001, to “exercise reasonable diligence” in monitoring the company’s financial records.
When Slater & Gordon lawyers launched a class action against Sandhurst Trustees on behalf of 5000 “mum and dad investors”, they alleged Fincorp was insolvent in 2006, at least nine months before the company collapsed.
Slater & Gordon’s case against the bank hinged on whether information about Fincorp’s collapse became available quickly enough.
“The resolution has been agreed on the basis of no liability,” Ms McDonald said.
“We’re glad they have come to the party.”
Bendigo Bank, as parent company of Sandhurst Trustees, has “conditionally agreed” to compensate investors.
The payout will come from insurers and not the bank’s or the trustees’ pockets.
Subject to Federal Court approval, the proposed $29 million settlement will represent, according to Slater & Gordon, “a significant legal milestone”.
The settlement means the class action will not be tested in court.
The case itself, however, will be a “wake-up call to any trustee company which is asleep at the wheel,” Slater & Gordon’s Odette McDonald said.
“This should ring alarm bells for other trustee companies,” she said.
Bendigo Bank has refused to comment on the proposed settlement and the fall-out, only issuing what they call a “reactionary” press release sent out in response to enquiries, and which did not appear on their company website.
That release said the agreement to settle was “pragmatic”.
As recently as their 2010 annual report, the bank was confident the claim against them would not be “materially adverse”.
The payout will provide “closure”, according to director of Executive Banking and Wealth Marnie Baker.
“Together with our insurers, we have decided to settle the matter for commercial reasons.
“This decision does not imply any wrong doing on Sandhurst Trustees’ behalf.”
According to Professor Ramsay, the settlement’s ramifications may affect both the bank’s public reputation and their internal business.
“Because of the attention this has gained, it would be true to say that this does raise questions among clients,” Professor Ramsay said.
“You would expect to see changes as to how these things are handled in house.
“I’d be surprised if things haven’t changed inside the bank.”