Is the bank’s duty of secrecy absolute? (2)


Common Mistakes that Bankers Should Avoid

“Adventure is the life of commerce, but caution is the life of banking” …Walter Bagehot

Last week I looked at the ‘Tournier principles’ in great detail. Today, I will share some basic mistakes that bankers make which breach the duty of confidentiality. These inadvertent disclosures when revealed will go a long way to avoid most of the frustrations encountered during the banker customer relationship.

Having identified the four exceptions that enable bankers to divulge customers’ information to third parties, some bankers still erroneously divulge information without thinking of the consequences. In all things, the ‘Tournier’ principles still run supreme in any court of law.

Bankers, especially frontliners, please read through some of the simple mistakes that we make and pledge to avoid them. Remember that even if the account is terminated either by closure, death or bankruptcy, our lips should still be sealed – unless under the four exceptions:  where compelled by (1) law, (2) public duty, (3) the interest of the bank, or (4) where the client had consented, even implicitly, to disclosure.



The ‘Tournier’ Principles

Tournier vs National Provincial and Union Bank of England [1924] was a landmark legal case in the United Kingdom. It established the conditions under which banks owed confidentiality to their clients allowing four circumstances wherein banks were not required to guard privacy: where compelled by

 (1) Law

(2) Public duty

(3) The interest of the bank

(4) Where the client had consented

even implicitly to disclosure.

These principles still hold good today.

1.       A Secretary’s nightmare:  You are standing at the fax machine, watching your highly confidential document finish scanning through the machine, when you think to yourself:

“Did I dial the right fax number?”

Oh my God, the bank’s demand notice to a defaulting customer to pay his debt or risk legal action has been directed to a wrong addressee!!! The account holder is a prominent Businessman/Politician.

2.      Leaving copies of Account-opening documents in the Photocopier overnight instead of shredding them. (Examples are passports, Voter IDs, Driving licences, Business Registration documents etc.) Have they fallen into the wrong hands and been duplicated in full colour and used for fraudulent purposes?

3.      Oops! With the click of a mouse, you have inadvertently emailed to your customer an attachment meant for another customer! This is obviously a misdirected email!

4.      Loudly discussing a customer’s business transactions at the front desk in full view and hearing of other customers waiting in the banking hall. For example, he is travelling that night and needs to purchase US$55,000 cash to carry along. Other clients sitting and watching can follow him after he has been served, may track him to his house for the usual ‘Midnight Visitatio’…sometimes leaving him dead! Be Careful, as you owe a duty of care to your customers, apart from the duty of secrecy.

5.      Not identifying a customer before giving out account information. Sometimes you may be under pressure. Unfortunately, there are a few stories of identical twins playing pranks on bankers, and impersonating each other!

6.      Shouting a customer’s name and balance across the counter, within the hearing of third parties. Tellers beware. Even if the customer asks you to shout it out, there are more professional ways of doing so.

7.      Handing out information to a ‘Known Agent’ for delivery to a customer, without confirming it is done with the consent of the account holder. About eight years ago, the known agent of a bank’s key customer defrauded his employer – who was a middle-aged illiterate but shrewd businesswoman. Apparently, he was signing and even negotiated loan facilities for the customer! Furthermore, this agent had apparently been making daily deposits in the bank, collecting advises and statement of accounts as well as all bank correspondence with the account holder. Mr. X had held himself out as the ‘Accountant’, and over the decades had wormed his way into the hearts of the bank’s staff. He did not even have a power of attorney or any written document from the account holder to that effect. In court, it became an embarrassment for the bank. This is how far the relationship can go if bankers assume all is normal.

8.       Not confirming and checking a customer’s credentials if the voice on the telephone is unrecognisable (e.g. his address, approximate balance, last cheque issued etc.) before giving out information on the phone. Some years ago, before Internet banking was introduced, a deep male voice called me to get the balance on an account. Before then, I needed to do my own KYC to ensure I was talking to the right person. Lo and behold, the account name was for a lady, who happened to be the man’s wife.  He admitted it, but felt he had the right to know his wife’s balance! Please men, avoid bringing your family rights and responsibilities to the bank.

9.       Providing a customer with debit cards (ATM) – but mistakenly linking the cards to someone else’s account. Data entry error. The wrongful beneficiary can empty the account immediately if he/she finds out , and is facilitated by the ‘SMS’ banking notices!


  1. Your customer, Mrs. Kofi, has moved house and also wrote to the bank giving details of her new address. The bank did not change the details in the system, and her statement of account was posted to the same old address instead of the new one. The owner of the new box number opened the envelope by mistake. However, since she knew the original owner, she returned it to her and apologised for mis-reading the addressee. The statement showed that Mrs. Kofi’s account was overdrawn, with some cheques dishonoured! She is furious and embarrassed.

11.    Out of pity, you divulge bank balances to surviving children of your customer who have no Letters of Administration.

On this note, let me stress a practical example of how some banks handle an insignificant credit balance of a deceased sole proprietor. Where the value of the estate is small – i.e. where the balance of the deceased’s account is less than GH¢50.00 (or as the bank’s internal policy directs) the balance can be released to a near-relative, provided:

–       The relative has been identified and the bank has had a satisfactory report on the relative.

–      The bank has seen the death certificate. In such cases, the bank will rely on an affidavit sworn before a competent commissioner of oath by the known relative.

–      In all this, get your legal department involved.

12.    A beneficiary of a cheque overhears the Teller and her Supervisor at the back office discussing the unhealthy operation of an account holder’s account which is severely overdrawn. The beneficiary, who happens to be the ex-wife of the customer, returns to him with anger, throws the ‘bounced’ cheque at him, sparking an argument and taunts about his ‘unhealthy’ banking transactions. The customer is embarrassed and threatens to close his account.

13.   Unknowingly revealing bank details of a customer to a spouse or children. The wife and relatives have no right to know the customer’s banking affairs.

14.   Three salary workers enter the bank manager’s office to discuss the possibility of a salary advance against their pay voucher, which is covered by their company’s cheque awaiting maturity. The bank manager checks the pay advices and discusses each applicant’s loan details in the presence of the other. He did not caution them about their implied consent in coming together in his office to discuss their individual banking needs. Unknowingly, their salaries are different. Eventually one of them returns to the Financial Controller at his office demanding to know the reason for his salary being lower than his colleagues! The Financial Controller calls the bank manager to learn what happened! You can guess the outcome!                                      

15.   On one of your loan recovery exercises, you were unable to meet your defaulting customer in his home. You inform his wife, who is not a Director of the Company, about the husband’s loan defaults. His wife is shocked at the revelations and threatens her husband with divorce!

16.   How do you serve customers who deposit or withdraw large volumes of cash? Across the counter? In this day and age, this is a no-no. Imagine a teller paying GH¢200,000 across the counter in full view of other customers!!! We cannot rule out divulgence of this transaction by others – both internal and external; people are lurking around to follow cars with big cash in their car boots, taking down the car registration numbers and even following them to their homes and offices to pay them nocturnal visits later! Dear bankers, this is the reason why large cash withdrawals should be avoided. In the same vein, customers should encourage their clients to make payments directly to banks or through Internet banking facilities or mobile money. Save a life and save a customer today.

Dear Bankers, all these inadvertent disclosures may be due to ignorance by some staff. Sharing experiences on the basic banking principles is a must. When you are confronted with a dilemma on secrecy, just shake yourself out of the confusion, do a quick check and remember the ‘Tournier’ Case. Ask yourself, is it falling within the Tournier Principles? If yes, fine. If no, keep quiet; and when you are not sure, refer to your Superior Officers or to your Legal Department.

 Remember, Silence is Golden and Should Remain Such Unless Called Upon by the ‘Tournier’ Principles.



Alberta Quarcoopome is a Fellow of the Institute of Bankers, and CEO of ALKAN Business Consult Ltd. She is the Author of two books: “The 21st Century Bank Teller: A Strategic Partner” and “My Front Desk Experience: A Young Banker’s Story”. She uses her experience and practical case studies in training young bankers in operational risk management, sales, customer service, banking operations and fraud. 



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Tel: +233-0244333051/+233-0244611343

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