Is it legal to charge interest to a debt in Australia?
It's a question that we come across on a regular basis from our commercial clients and one that is more common than you may think.
Interest is the price (charge) paid for the use of someone else's money. For commercial clients, it is a charge that your clients pay when they don't pay that your invoice by the due date. When they don't pay you on the due date, they are effectively borrowing money from your organisation.
While those in the finance industry often have very well worded Contracts and Terms and Conditions that allow the calculation of an annual percentage rate (APR) many small business owners struggle to understand the requirements and while they understand the practical value of incurring interest they worry about the practicalities of applying additional interest fees or charges to an outstanding account.
Can you charge interest to a debt?
The short answer to this question is yes provided your terms and conditions permit it. There are however strict requirements you must meet in order for your claim for interest to be legally collectable, and we would recommend you seek legal advice to ensure your interest charges are recoverable.
What are the requirements?
There should be a provision in your Contract, Agreement and / or Terms and Conditions for the calculation of interest that the customer has agreed to prior to monies being advanced for the goods or services you have provided. This provision should be easy to understand, outline to the customer exactly when interest charges may apply, how they are calculated, the date that interest may start to accrue on the debt and should be a fair and reasonable rate.
What is a fair and reasonable rate?
A fair and reasonable rate can be difficult to determine however most businesses charge between 5% to 10% per annum. The interest charge should be at a rate that is a genuine estimate of the cost of the late payment to your business (ie your banks overdraft rate). Anything higher than this may not be enforceable.
The Local Court of NSW currently prescribes a pre-Judgment interest rate of 5.50%. This rate is 4.00% above the cash rate last published by the Reserve Bank of Australia and is reviewed every 6 months. The current rates can be found at Interest Rates Applicable After 1 July 2010.
Should you charge interest?
Charging interest to a debt can have pros and cons, and is ultimately a commercial decision. Where a customer knows that interest may be charged on an overdue account or invoice it is often incentive enough for them to pay on time. On the other hand you may alienate a particular customer who may take their business elsewhere. While you may offer a better product or service than your competitor, applying interest to a debt could be the very reason you lose business.
In a situation like this it is often better to communicate to your customer that their payment is late and granting an extension for payment before charging interest and being flexible enough to agree to waive these charges if a customer can be retained.
Is there a minimum amount I can charge interest on?
In NSW the Uniform Civil Procedure Rules 2005 states the following:
36.7 Payment of Interest
(2) The Local Court may not order the payment of interest up to judgment in any proceedings in which the amount claimed is less than $1,000.
While interest may be charged on a debt less than $1,000, assuming that this is clearly set out in your Contract, Agreement and / or Terms and Conditions, it will, if legal proceedings prove necessary, be at the discretion of the Court as to whether or not interest will be awarded.
Have a question about interest, fees or charges? We recommend that you speak with Collection Law Partners or a qualified legal practitioner.
Disclaimer: This article is general information only and does not constitute legal advice and is not intended to be relied on in any way.