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The Saga of OHIM’s Bank Charges

April 13, 2009

In a blog post earlier this year I mentioned how we were being charged £15 by HSBC for transferring funds to OHIM in respect of our clients’ European Union trade mark fees, only to suddenly find we were being charged a further 20 or so Euros per transaction for transfers made months before. It was too late to pass on the costs to our clients.

This story was picked up by Class 46 and unfortunately I was not aware of OHIM’s official reply until now.

OHIM states that “customers who use the system infrequently and therefore may not be familiar with all the logistics of making Euro payments” are the ones likely to experience the sort of problems we have experienced. As it happens we have an account with OHIM and make more than the occasional transfer of funds. So OHIM’s reference to “Our regular customers from the UK do not usually find this a problem as they choose payment methods that avoid fees – using OHIM current accounts or credit cards” is incorrect.

As previously stated we have an OHIM account. The article also makes reference to the ability to avoid charges by using the SEPA payment method, which we have asked HSBC about, and been advised that it is not an option available to us. What surprises me is why nobody else seems to be complaining, and I can only think it is down to the fact that their hands are not tied as ours are by having to comply with the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s Accounts Rules.  These rules are applied very strictly, and are apparently something that many law firms are found to be breaching when the SRA visits.

The SRA Accounts Rules regard it as making a “secret profit” for a law firm to charge its clients more than the actual bank charges incurred. Therefore as the bank charges we are aware of at the time we make our transfer is £15 this is the sum we are allowed to pass on to our client. If we charged £35 we would be deemed to be making a secret profit.

If we had known at the time of the bank transfer that there would be a further 20 Euros in charges, there would be no problem to charge the client £35. However, being advised of the charges 3 or 4 months after the event (for example we are now being charged for transactions in December), is the problem, not the charges as such.

We have been involved in extensive communications with HSBC to try and understand why all of a sudden these charges are being levied for transactions that occurred MONTHS ago. We have now found out it is due to a change of policy by Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria S.A, OHIM’s bankers.

Therefore that is why since early this year the bank has suddenly and retrospectively begun to charge a handling fee of around 20 Euros per transaction for transactions completed more than 3 months ago.

Another aggravation this has caused us is that our bankers, HSBC began taking these charges out of whichever account we had sent the monies from initially (our office or client account). They know that our client account is not to be debited with general bank charges as it is a breach of the SRA accounts rules to take money out of client account when no money is held in that account for the client in question (which it isn’t as we invoiced and closed the particular client’s matter months ago). So this delayed request for charges by OHIM’s bankers is also causing HSBC to get a lot of grief from us. I was all ready to move our account elsewhere, only now I realize it is not HSBC that’s to blame but Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria S.A, OHIM’s bankers.

What is really upsetting is the time this has all taken up. We had to correspond at great length with HSBC over these sudden and initially unexplained deductions, and have only now been made aware of the full facts. Initially HSBC stonewalled us by pointing out that these charges were the result of our choosing the option to pay all the charges in connection with the transfer. (The fact that we have no choice but to use this option if we are to successfully pay the official fees in full was beside the point). Nor did the bank really engage with our objection that it is not acceptable to charge us months after the event when we are no longer able to pass on the costs to our clients. However, I see that OHIM is also not really able to answer the simple question, why it needs to take its bankers 3 months to advise of its charges?

In the meantime, I have notified the SRA of the facts and indicated that henceforth we will charge £35 for bank charges, and that I am trying to run a business here, which is not made easy if I have to worry over trivial regulatory breaches over small sums, which are not particularly serious “secret profits” for us to make anyway. In fact far from making secret profits we are making losses which we cannot pass on to our clients, all because of OHIM’s bankers being too inefficient to notify their charges at the time of the transaction.