Reporting by Alan Charlish, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, Pawel Florkiewicz, Karol Badohal; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, William Maclean and Hugh Lawson
WARSAW, June 15 (Reuters) – The European Union’s top court on Thursday backed Polish borrowers with Swiss franc-denominated mortgages in a long-running case that the Polish regulator has warned could cost the country’s banks 100 billion zlotys ($24 billion).
Hundreds of thousands of Poles took out mortgages in foreign currencies, mainly in Swiss francs, attracted by lower interest rates. They are now repaying them in far bigger instalments than expected, however, after the Swiss franc soared against the zloty and following interest rate hikes in Switzerland.
The court ruling means banks cannot charge for the cost of capital on foreign currency loans which were deemed invalid because they contained unfair terms, a verdict which had been expected by analysts.
“EU law does not preclude, in the event of the annulment of a mortgage loan agreement vitiated by unfair terms, the consumers from seeking compensation from the bank going beyond reimbursement of the monthly instalments paid,” the court said in a statement.
“By contrast, it precludes the bank from relying on similar claims against consumers.”
The ruling was in line with an opinion from an adviser to the court which was issued in February.
While the cost to the Polish banking sector will be large, analysts have said it will be able to absorb the blow.
The court said in its statement that the argument about the stability of the financial markets is not relevant in the context of the interpretation of the directive, which is intended to protect consumers.
Poland’s WIG Banks index (.BNKI) was down 1.1% at 1046 GMT.
Hungary forced banks in the country to convert their Swiss franc mortgages into forints years ago as they became increasingly costly, while Poland, Croatia and Romania have all faced similar foreign currency mortgage-related problems.
SETTLEMENT OR COURT
Polish financial regulator KNF said the ruling was negative for the banking sector and wider economy but that the country’s lenders were safe.
Tadeusz Bialek, president of the Polish Bank Association, told a news conference that banks’ would be less able to lend as a result of the ruling, harming the economy.
While banks have been offering out-of-court settlements to clients, many prefer to go to court, especially seeing as judges have ruled in their favour in 97% of cases in the first quarter according to Votum Robin Lawyers.
Andrzej Zorski, a partner at law firm Pilawska Zorski, said the ruling would encourage more mortgage holders to take banks to court.
“Borrowers who were afraid to sue the bank due to the threat of a bank lawsuit for remuneration for the use of capital after today’s judgment should no longer have such fears,” he wrote in an email.
Kamil Chwiedosik, founder of the Life Without Credit organisation which helps mortgage holders in legal proceedings with banks, said he was “ecstatic”, while Swiss-franc mortgage holder Zofia Karaszewska, 40, said she had decided to sue the bank that granted her loan.
“I felt that I received such support here, both as a consumer and as a victim, that I deserve this compensation, not the bank,” she told Reuters by telephone.
Bialek said banks had already concluded around 60,000 settlements with customers and hoped to reach more, saying it was a “cheap and quick way of amicably resolving cases”.
($1 = 4.1129 zlotys)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.