In the dispute over insufficient interest paid on premium savings contracts, the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) once again strengthened consumers. The judges declared the interest clauses of the savings contracts of Sparkassen Zwickau and Erzgebirge invalid. Silver houses will now have to recalculate interest. Customers can therefore partly expect significant arrears. The Consumers Association of Saxony lodged a complaint. Nearly 3,000 savers took part in the two model declarative actions. These are additional claims for an average amount of more than 5,000 euros.
In a matter of weeks, Saxon consumer advocates won two more consumer-friendly judgments before the BGH. At the beginning of October, the highest civil judge issued a similar decision in the Sparkasse Leipzig case.
What is the dispute about?
Premium savings contracts were sold millions of times between 1990 and 2010 by savings banks and Volksbanks. In addition to a fixed premium, savers receive variable interest on their savings. In the phase of low interest rates, however, the institutes lowered the interest rate on their own initiative. As a result, clients may not have received enough income. The judges therefore stipulated that savings banks should use a uniform Bundesbank interest rate for long-term investments for the calculation.
What now needs to be clarified by the lower court – in the case of the Saxon savings banks, the higher regional court in Dresden. Savers concerned must therefore “continue to show patience and strong nerves” until this benchmark interest rate is set, according to the consumer advice center. Only then do we know how much money the institutes have to pay back. By then, other proceedings will likely end up before the BGH. Nationally, consumer advice centers have initiated around ten class actions relating to premium savings contracts.
Why are there so many procedures?
Among other things, consumer advocates want to prevent customer complaints from expiring. The BGH specifies in its judgments: The three-year limitation period does not begin to run until the end of the savings contract. This means that the entire duration of the contract must be included in the subsequent calculation of interest.
In some institutes, however, time is running out. Some Saxon savings banks, for example, terminated a number of contracts in 2018. “So we are planning other model declarative actions to inhibit the limitation period,” explains Michael Hummel, lawyer at the Saxony Consumer Center. With each new judgment before the BGH, the legal situation becomes clearer for consumers, says Hummel: “This makes it easier for affected savers to assert their claims.
Who will benefit from the judgments?
Judgments directly assist consumers who have participated in typical declaratory actions. “You can invoke the judgment if you claim interest from the Sparkasse or if you therefore bring it to court,” explains Sebastian Reiling, who deals with model declarative actions at the Federal Association of Consumer Organizations. Because even after a positive judgment, consumers must again assert their rights against the financial institution. Not all savings banks give in. “There are institutes which refuse to reimburse the payments despite the decision of the BGH”, explains lawyer Hummel. Sparkasse Leipzig says the benchmark interest rate issue has not yet been clarified. The BGH judgment “therefore does not give rise to requests for payment in specific cases”.
However, the air is growing thinner for savings banks – and not just for the institutes involved in the process. Because the criteria that the judges have set for calculating interest can be applied in many ways to contracts with other savings banks. This increases the chances of their premium savers to demand payment arrears – also legally: “Other courts usually do not deviate from what the BGH says,” says Sebastian Reiling. However, this does not guarantee that individual financial institutions will give in in the interest rate dispute.
Are the judgments already showing an effect?
They’re still too cool for that. “So far we have not been able to observe any change in the behavior of savings banks,” explains Matthias Schmid, lawyer at the Bavarian Consumer Center. However, some higher regional courts had already rendered rulings in favor of consumers. These certainly have an effect. “The amounts that savings banks are willing to pay have increased,” explains consumer lawyer Hummel. At the outset of litigation, institutes often offered only ten percent of what customers requested. “We’re now closer to 50 percent and over,” Hummel said. Saxon consumer advocates have so far recalculated the interest on a good 6,000 contracts. On average, additional installments of 3,500 euros came out.
However, the institutes’ willingness to pay varies. In Bavaria, for example, “savings banks generally refuse to make additional payments,” explains Matthias Schmid. If they make an offer, it is “not what savers are entitled to”. It’s different in Baden-Württemberg: there consumers “now receive additional payments from all institutes”, explains Niels Nauhauser, financial expert at the Consumer Center. Financial institutions reluctant to pay have warned consumer advocates against ineligible interest clauses – largely successfully. Additional claims amount on average to just under 2,500 euros. “But only those who ask will get a second look,” explains Niels Nauhauser. No savings bank pays on its own.
How do the savers concerned best proceed?
Anyone wishing to claim unpaid interest can have their contract checked for inadmissible clauses at consumer advice centers. Many also offer a recalculation of interest. With the result, you have to claim the interest of your financial institution. The calculation allows “to estimate how much you can ask and how to classify a possible offer of the Sparkasse”, explains financial expert Nauhauser.
If the offer is close to what you asked for, you can take it, says consumer lawyer Michael Hummel. If, on the other hand, the Sparkasse takes a stand, the only option left is usually to go to court. “With the BGH judgment, however, the odds of success have increased,” Hummel said. Experts advise consumers whose Sparkasse performs an example evaluation procedure to join. “This is the case, for example, with the lawsuits against Sparkasse Nürnberg and Stadtsparkasse Munich,” explains lawyer Matthias Schmid. So far, about 4,800 savers have done so. The consumer advice center estimates the number of people affected at around 50,000.