ASIC report: Australians need better hardship support from their lenders

ASIC

Some home loan lenders have made accessing financial assistance so difficult that more than one in three (35%) Australians dropped out of the application process at least once, according to a new ASIC report.

The report, Hardship, hard to get help: Lenders fall short in financial hardship support (REP 783) outlines findings from ASIC’s review of 10 large home lenders. The review found they should be doing more to support Australians who were struggling to meet their repayments.

The report also found 40% of customers who received hardship assistance through reduction or deferral of payments, fell into arrears right after the assistance period ended.

As increasing numbers of Australians struggle with cost of living pressures, ASIC Chair Joe Longo said, “in the worst cases, lenders ignored hardship notices, effectively abandoning customers who needed their support” and were not meeting community expectations.

“For people who reach out to their lender to signal they need support, this can be devastating. Too many Australians in financial hardship are finding it hard to get help from their lenders and it’s time for meaningful improvement,” Chair Longo said.

“ASIC spelt out in a letter to the CEOs of lenders last year that they need to meet their obligations to customers experiencing financial hardship.

“This report highlights lenders must improve the way they deal with customers experiencing hardship. What we have seen is simply not good enough – struggling customers deserve the right support in their time of need.

“ASIC has made this a priority focus area, and where appropriate, we will not hesitate to take enforcement action to protect consumers,” the Chair said.

The report highlights failures of lenders to identify customers in financial stress, use of ‘cookie-cutter’ approaches to dealing with hardship requests, as well as onerous assessment and approval processes.

ASIC is also concerned lenders have inadequate arrangements for supporting vulnerable Australians including those experiencing family violence.

ASIC Commissioner Alan Kirkland, whose remit includes support for vulnerable consumers, said lenders were not “putting customers front and centre” in their approach to financial hardship.

“Many lenders aren’t taking their customers’ unique situations into account, instead providing a standardised ‘one-size-fits all approach’, which is not meeting customers’ needs,” Commissioner Kirkland said.

“The lack of support and in some cases, failure to respond when customers flagged they were struggling, is unacceptable and greatly adds to the distress of customers already struggling with heightened levels of stress and anxiety.

“We encourage people worried about making repayments to contact their lender and if not happy with the response, to lodge a complaint with them.”

From the 10 large home lenders reviewed in 2023, seven had improvement programs in place to manage financial hardship however, as ASIC’s report highlights, much more work is required. Lenders acknowledged that further work is required to support their customers in hardship.

ASIC expects all lenders to act on the findings outlined in this report and prioritise improving their approach to supporting customers experiencing financial hardship. Reviewed lenders will be asked to prepare an action plan outlining how they will respond to the issues raised.

Background

Under section 72 of the National Credit Code, if a consumer notifies their lender that they are or will be unable to meet their credit obligations, lenders must consider varying the customer’s credit contract and advise them of the decision within specified timeframes.

Variations to the credit contract can include payment deferrals, reduced payment arrangements, interest-only periods, term extensions, capitalisation of arrears or interest-rate reductions.

In August 2023, ASIC issued an open letter to the CEOs of all lenders advising of focus on financial hardship and expectations of lenders. ASIC then undertook a data collection involving 30 large lenders, and a review of 10 large home lenders to understand their approach to financial hardship.

ASIC reviewed the lenders’ policies and procedures, looked at case studies and conducted hypothetical customer exercises to understand differences in lenders’ approach to hardship. The findings from this review are summarised in Report 783 Hardship, hard to get help: Lenders fall short in financial hardship support (REP 783).

The lenders in ASIC’s review are:

  • Bank of Queensland Limited
  • Bendigo & Adelaide Bank Limited
  • Commonwealth Bank of Australia
  • ING Bank (Australia) Limited
  • Macquarie Bank Limited (and Macquarie Securitisation Limited)
  • National Australia Bank Limited
  • Pepper Money Limited
  • Resimac Limited (and related entities)
  • Secure Funding Pty Limited (trading as Liberty Financial)
  • Westpac Banking Corporation.

ASIC advises consumers experiencing financial hardship to talk to their lender as soon as possible and request assistance. If they are unhappy with the service received or their lender’s decision, they should make a complaint to their lender in the first instance. If they are still not happy with the lender’s response, they can contact the Australian Financial Complaints Authority.

If they have multiple debts or need help applying for financial hardship, they should call the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007 to talk to a financial counsellor for free. Further information is available on Moneysmart at Financial hardship.

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