Mentally or visually challenged customers fall under a bank’s ‘special types’ category and they can avail all the facilities that any other customer can.
Some time back, I found an interesting mail in my inbox. The sender, while narrating a banking issue of his visually impaired father, a government employee, had raised signature problem causing lot of inconvenience to the customers while conducting a financial transaction at a bank branch. Before deliberating upon the issues confronting visually impaired bank customers, let me tell you that, according to an estimate, more than 40 per cent bank customers either feel let down by their hands when they sign a cheque or are gripped in fear of not being able to re-produce accurately the signatures recorded with the bank.
Mismatching of signature compels a bank teller to refuse the payment against the cheque presented for cash withdrawal or deposited in the bank for transfer of money to some other account. In this digital age, re-producing signatures reasonably accurately is something that has emerged as a challenge.
Mismatch in signatures has its own implications and it’s not easy to handle considering its importance in banking transactions. In the first place, inconvenience is inevitable as the bank would be refusing a financial transaction and then one can also suffer monetary loss. For example, if you have deposited post-dated cheques with a bank for paying equated monthly installments (EMIs) in a loan account, the signature mismatch in the cheques can lead to penalty to the customer.
Bouncing of a cheque because of a signature mismatch could seem like a minor issue, but for banks it becomes a regulatory issue if such cheques are allowed in a financial transaction. One can negotiate signature mismatch in his bank account by simply walking into the bank branch. The account holder has to fill up some form where he/she can submit the changed/modified signature. Here the customer has to comply with ‘know your customer’ norms to help the bank to ascertain the customer as the original account holder.
Now let me come to some queries about banking services to the visually impaired customers. Are visually impaired persons eligible for availing all banking facilities independently? Is it mandatory even for a literate blind person to open account jointly with a sighted person? Can’t banks condone signature mismatch in such cases and allow transactions?
If one is visually impaired or a low vision person, chances are that most banks will not open his independent bank account. They will either insist that he should open a joint bank account with a sighted person or open a bank account with no cheque book facility or both. Most of the time bankers hold even most literate blind person at par with an illiterate person, which should never happen. This attitude of the banking fraternity is in contravention to the standing instructions of the Reserve Bank of India and Indian Banks Association.
There are certain procedural guidelines advising banks that they must render the same services to a visually impaired person as it would to any other person without discrimination. Generally speaking, all banks must provide the same facilities to a visually impaired customer/prospective customer as it would to any other customer. But at the same time, the customers should be made aware of the risk involved in some of these facilities, which may be higher than that for a normal customer. There should be no hesitation on part of banks to extend additional facilities like reading and filling up of forms, slips, and cheques to such customers.
Banks cannot force a visually impaired customer to operate the bank account jointly with any person or in the presence of any person. However, on the request of visually impaired customer, banks have to allow him to appoint a person as his power of attorney or mandate holder to operate his bank account.
However, the banks have to follow the same procedure for opening the account of a visually impaired person as it does for its other customers.
Facilities for withdrawal of cash as are provided to all customers regarding cash payments must be provided to visually impaired customers. In case a visually impaired customer makes cash withdrawals at the bank, then the payment must be made in the presence of another bank employee/officer.
The banks cannot deny cheque book facility to a visually impaired person. However, cheque book can be issued only if the blind person can sign consistently. Even credit and debit cards cannot be denied to a visually impaired customer.
As for the mentally challenged persons, they too are eligible for availing banking services. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has directed the banks to open such accounts with a guardianship certificate. Previously, the guardian in the case of a mentally retarded person was appointed under Mental Health Act. However, after repealing the Mental Health Act, the guardian for the mentally challenged persons is now to be appointed under The National Trust for Welfare of Persons with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Mental Retardation and Multiple Disabilities Act, 1999. The Act empowers a Local Level Committee to appoint a guardian, to a person suffering from any of the conditions relating to autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation or a combination of any two or more of such conditions and includes a person suffering from severe multiple disabilities.
The accounts can be opened and operated by the legal guardian as long as he remains the legal guardian. Banks have been strictly advised to rely upon the guardianship certificate for opening and operating bank accounts.
The rules also envisage that whenever banks learn that one of their customers is incapable of operating the account due to mental incapacity, the operation in such a customer’s account would be immediately suspended. As per the law, a contract with the mentally unsound person is void ab initio. Banks, in such cases, rely upon the guardianship certificate.
Though the persons of unsound mind are disqualified from contracting, the disqualification does not apply to contracts already entered into by them during the period of their sanity or contracts which are ratified by them during such period. Once a bank receives information that their account holder has been declared mentally incapable, it will immediately stop the operation in the customer’s account.
Remarkably, the rights of disabled persons stand recognised under various legal instruments and they are to be given the services and privileges at par with other members of the society. As guaranteed in the right to equality and the right to life, enshrined in the fundamental rights in our constitution, it is an obligation to provide equal opportunities and facilities to everyone, irrespective of any disabilities they might suffer from.
It is worth mentioning that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities clearly commits to rights of persons with disability and their access to services. Article 9 of the Convention enables persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life and also gives them access to facilities and services open or provided to the public, both in urban and rural areas.
Additionally, Article 12 states: “Parties shall take all appropriate and effective measures to ensure the equal right of persons with disabilities to own or inherit property, to control their own financial affairs and to have equal access to bank loans, mortgages and other forms of financial credit, and shall ensure that persons with disabilities are not arbitrarily deprived of their property.”
Sajjad Bazaz heads Internal Communication Department of Jammu & Kashmir Bank Ltd. The views expressed are his own and not of the institution he works for.