Debt Collection

What legal obligations do creditors need to be aware of in taking steps to recover money owed by a consumer or debtor?

Debt Collection Guidelines

The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) & the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) have published:

➲ Joint Debt Collection Guidelines.

Both the ACCC and ASIC enforce Commonwealth consumer protection laws, including laws relevant to debt collection.
The ACCC and ASIC have jointly produced this guideline which aims to assist creditors, collectors and debtors understand their rights and obligations, and ensure that debt collection activity is undertaken in a way that is consistent with consumer protection laws.
The guide was originally published in 2005 and has been updated to reflect significant changes to the law, such as the introduction of the Australian Consumer Law in 2011, the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009, and privacy laws and principles.

Source: ACCC Debt collection guideline for collectors & creditors

What constitutes "Hardship Notice" under the National Credit Code?

Hardship Notice

72 Changes on Ground of Hardship
(1) If a debtor considers that he or she is or will be unable to meet his or her obligations under a credit contract, the debtor may give the credit provider notice (a hardship notice), orally or in writing, of the debtor’s inability to meet the obligations.

As per s 72 (above) of the National Credit Code 2009 (Cth), a debtor who thinks they will be unable to meet their obligations under a credit contract can give notice to the creditor of their inability.

This notice can be given either orally or in writing.

When giving notice, the debtor is not obliged to frame the notice in a certain way, or to make use of a certain form, though it remains up for debate as to whether the words "hardship" or "hardship notice" have to be used for a debtor to properly give s 72 notice of hardship (see RHG Mortgage Corp Ltd v Saunders [2016] below).

The bar for giving notice has reduced somewhat since 16 May 2013, prior to which the debtor seeking to notice had to specify one of three ways in which they sought to have the credit contract changed.

Since the 2013 amendments, the debtor is no longer obliged to first propose how the credit contract should be changed.

It would now appear that a debtor need only give notice to the creditor, at which point it is now the creditor's duty to either:

1️⃣ Request further information from the debtor (including how the credit contract should be changed); or

2️⃣ If the debtor requested specific changes when putting the creditor on notice in the first place, to return to the debtor with a verdict as to whether the creditor has or has not agreed to the changes proposed.

The creditor must take do one of the above actions within 21 days of receiving the initial hardship notice from the debtor.

Failure to do so attracts a civil penalty for the creditor.

RHG Mortgage Corp Ltd v Saunders [2016] NSWSC 1037

Had the substantive issues in this matter been heard, perhaps it would have provided some precedent as to whether a debtor needs to use the word "hardship" to put a creditor on notice of hardship, or whether other words to the equivalent are sufficient.

Unfortunately, it would appear as though the matter settled after a couple of interlocutory hearings.

Nonetheless, Garling J. suggested here that the latter position (words equivalent hardship are sufficient) may well be an arguable position, though he went no further as to the merits of this argument, as it did not fall for determination.

Perhaps this suggestion could provide the basis for a future legal challenge?

Implied Hardship Notice?

What happens if I haven't given notice? Is there such a thing as an implied hardship notice?

The legislation mentions nothing of circumstances in which a creditor might be impliedly put on notice as to a debtor's hardship. As such, it would appear difficult to imagine a situation where a creditor might be impliedly put on notice of hardship.

The 2013 amendments to the National Credit Code 2009 (Cth) appears to have had the effect of reducing the task of the debtor to expressly put a creditor on hardship notice.

Even if the debtor offers no further information as to the circumstances of hardship or how they would like the credit contract amended, the onus is on the credit provider to request that information from the debtor once the debtor has given effective notice under s 72(1).

Whilst it is dangerous to make assumptions about the operation of the law, it seems unlikely that any court would read into the National Credit Code 2009 (Cth) the existence of an implied hardship notice.

The matter has not been brought before the courts, and as such, there is no guidance from case law.

Besides, the importance of time is well established in s 72.

It constitutes a breach of the law, amounting to 5000 civil penalty units, for a creditor to fail to return to the debtor with a verdict within the relevant time frame.

Given time is of the essence, an implied hardship notice is unlikely to sit well with the law here, as it is difficult to place a time regarding when notice may be said to have been given, where it may be given tacitly.

Is it too late for me to make / give Notice of Hardship?

Enforcement Proceedings and s 89A of the National Credit Code

From s 89A of the National Credit Code 2009 (Cth), it is evident that a debtor may make give notice of hardship even after a creditor has given the debtor a default notice.

89A Effect of hardship notices on enforcement
(1) This section applies if ...
(b) before or after the credit provider gives the default notice, the debtor gives the credit provider a hardship notice (the current hardship notice) under section 72; and

The effect of s 89A is to prevent creditors from initiating enforcement proceedings until 14 days after the creditor has responded to the hardship notice. Besides this, it affords a debtor the opportunity to give hardship notice to a creditor even after default.

Best case scenario, a creditor, upon examination of the debtor's circumstances, may consider that changing the credit contract as favourable over enforcement proceedings.

RHG Mortgage Corporation Ltd v Sava [2011] QSC 372

It would appear possible to give notice of hardship even subsequent to the commencement of enforcement proceedings. Atkinson J here notes that a judge hearing the matter previously adjourned the matter to allow the defendant to give a hardship notice to the creditor:

"Because there has not been any complying application, the obligations which inhere in the credit provider under s 72 (3) have not arisen.
This matter came to court on a previous occasion and it appears that the Judge hearing it adjourned it to allow Mr Sava, the defendant, to obtain legal advice with regard to making a complying application for hardship to the mortgagee/plaintiff or to the court under s 74" per Atkinson J.

Outside Options?

For a debtor unable to rely on the provisions relating to hardship notices, a debtor may consider making a claim on s 76, should it be possible to construe the terms of the credit contract as unfair in some way:

76 Court may reopen unjust transactions
(1) The court may, if satisfied on the application of a debtor, mortgagor or guarantor that, in the circumstances relating to the relevant credit contract, mortgage or guarantee at the time it was entered into or changed (whether or not by agreement), the contract, mortgage or guarantee or change was unjust, reopen the transaction that gave rise to the contract, mortgage or guarantee or change.

Credits:

The above overview of the law pertaining to Hardship Notices under the National Credit Code was prepared by Suk Jae Chung | Practical Legal Training (PLT) Placement, Blue Ocean Law Group℠.

Important Notice:

This FAQ is intended for general interest + information only.

It is not legal advice, nor should it be relied upon or used as such.

We recommend you always consult a lawyer for legal advice specifically tailored to your needs & circumstances.

Why has it come to this? Root Cause Analysis: Letters of Demand/Statutory Demand for non-payment of debt

Root Cause Analysis

In order to reduce the need to send Letters of Demand/Statutory Demands in the future, it is worthwhile to conduct a root cause analysis which might include the following questions:

✅ Did you perform reference checks on the Debtor?

✅ Did you perform a credit check before extending credit?

✅ If you are dealing with a company, did you obtain a personal guarantee from the company directors to support the account?

✅ Does your written agreement include a term granting you the right to secure a charge against the Debtor's current +/or future real and/or personal property?

✅ Do you have a written agreement with the Debtor, which includes payment terms, address for service, and the capability to serve notices via email/fax?

✅ Did you engage a lawyer to prepare your written agreement with the debtor or your standard terms of trade?

Credits:

This FAQ was written by James D. Ford GAICD | Principal Solicitor, Blue Ocean Law Group℠.

Important Notice:

This FAQ is intended for general interest + information only.

It is not legal advice, nor should it be relied upon or used as such.

We recommend you always consult a lawyer for legal advice specifically tailored to your needs & circumstances.