The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) has revealed that its proceedings against Westpac Group for alleged breaches of responsible lending have cost taxpayers at least $1.83 million.
The costs include expenses from a pre-litigation investigation of Westpac’s conduct, as well as charges associated with proceedings in the Federal Court and the regulator’s appeal to the Full Federal Court.
However, the costs exclude Westpac’s litigation expenses, which the court ordered ASIC to pay after its appeal was dismissed.
ASIC stated that Westpac is yet to disclose its expenses to the corporate regulator.
The litigation costs were revealed in a response to a question on notice from Liberal senator and chair of the parliamentary joint committee on corporations and financial services, James Paterson, from a public hearing held last month.
The public hearing was held prior to ASIC’s decision to accept the Full Federal Court’s judgement, which the regulator had considered appealing to the High Court.
Senator Paterson had questioned whether a move to take the matter to the High Court would be counterintuitive.
“As we’ve discussed in this case previously, it’s ASIC’s aspiration to have clarity in the law and that’s what you said the appeal could provide,” he said.
“Obviously, that clarity could also be provided by ASIC accepting the court’s ruling of what the law is.
“Now that you’ve appealed once and been unsuccessful, is it really wise for ASIC to create further uncertainty with another appeal?”
The regulator has since announced that in light of the Full Federal Court’s decision, it would review its updated regulatory guidance (RG 209) and consider the implications of the Federal Court’s decision on compliance practices.
ASIC issued its new guidance in December 2019, after holding two rounds of public consultation with industry stakeholders.
The principles-based guidance was designed to provide lenders with greater clarity and flexibility amid uncertainty off the back of scrutiny from the banking royal commission.
However, ASIC has stressed that prospective reforms of the National Consumer Credit Protection (NCCP) Act to further clarify the enforcement of responsible lending obligations is “ultimately a matter for the federal government and Parliament”.
In September 2018, Westpac admitted to breaches of responsible lending obligations under the National Credit Act, agreeing to pay a $35-million civil penalty.
ASIC and Westpac jointly approached the Federal Court, seeking orders that the bank contravened the responsible lending provisions due to failures of its automated decision system.
The breaches related to Westpac’s home loan assessment process during the period December 2011 and March 2015, during which approximately 260,000 home loans were approved by Westpac’s automated decision system.
ASIC had alleged that for approximately 50,000 home loans, Westpac received but did not use consumers’ actual expense information, which exceeded the Household Expenditure Measure benchmark used by the bank.
It was also alleged that for a further 50,000 home loans, Westpac used the incorrect serviceability process when assessing a consumer’s capacity to repay a home loan upon the expiry of interest-only periods.
The regulator contended that of the 100,000 loans, Westpac should not have automatically approved approximately 10,500 loans.
However, the Federal Court was not convinced that Westpac breached its obligations, with Justice Perram seeking a friend of the court to review the case – reportedly stating that “there is no fact before [him] that any unsuitable loans were made”.
Following his review of the case, Justice Perram judged that in complying with its NCCP obligations, a lender “may do what it wants in the assessment process”.
Justice Perram took the view that a borrower’s living expenses were not necessarily indicative of their future spending behaviour, acknowledging that borrowers would tighten their belts after taking out a home loan.
“I may eat wagyu beef every day, washed down with the finest shiraz, but if I really want my new home, I can make do on much more modest fare.
“Knowing the amount I actually expend on food tells one nothing about what the conceptual minimum is. But it is this conceptual minimum which drives the question of whether I can afford to make the payments on the loan.
“Without additional information, I do not consider that it is possible to accept that the consumer’s declared living expenses tell one anything about their capacity to meet the repayments under the loan.”
[Related: ASIC to review responsible lending guidance]
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Charbel Kadib is the news editor on the mortgages titles at Momentum Media.
Before joining the team in 2017, Charbel completed internships with public relations agency Fifty Acres, and the Department of Communications and the Arts.