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Latest 30 September 2022

Empowered 4: What to do if your supplier takes you to court

This is the fourth in a new series of articles that provide much-needed information and guidance about cost of living support and consumer rights. The first covered energy bill support and discounts, the second covered welfare benefits to help pay energy costs, and the third covered disconnection and prepayment meters.

According to an investigation by the Big Issue, thousands of people are having prepayment meters forcibly installed through court warrants. A court warrant allows an energy company to enter someone’s home to install a prepayment meter without their consent.

In the third article in our Empowered series we considered disconnection and prepayment meters. This article explores what to do if a supplier wants to apply for a warrant to install a prepayment meter in a customer’s home.

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A warrant will not be required if the customer consents or if the supplier doesn’t need to enter the home to switch them to a prepayment meter. For example, if they are on a smart meter or can access their meter from the street.

If you believe your supplier may be considering applying for a warrant, it is advisable you write to them in advance to explain why a warrant should not be pursued, as well as requesting to be notified if an application is made and the hearing details to follow so you are able to make representations. A supplier should let the customer know they have applied for a warrant and notify them. A hearing is when the judge – most likely a magistrate – will consider whether to give the supplier a warrant to enter the property.

If a customer writes to the supplier in advance a supplier may be convinced to withdraw the application prior to the hearing. However, if the hearing goes ahead it is a good idea for the individual to attend, having prepared a written note of key points they’d like to make. They may also be able to get support from Citizen’s Advice or Support Through Court.

Possible grounds for contesting a warrant

A dispute over the debt

There are a number of reasons a warrant could be contested, for starters there being a genuine dispute over the debt owed by the customer to the supplier.

Examples for this are concerns about the reliability of the meter readings or questions over whether the customer was liable for the amount due.

If a customer has previously raised a complaint about the amount, it would be helpful to show evidence of this to the court.

Vulnerable customers

An individual seeking to oppose a warrant application should also draw to the attention of the magistrate to any ways in which they, or members of their household, are vulnerable. Suppliers are obliged to have regard to those with vulnerabilities, prior to disconnecting. Under their Supplier Licence Conditions, they are unable to disconnect certain groups during the winter and, if a supplier is signed up to the Vulnerability Commitment, then also through the rest of the year.

Suppliers are not able to pursue a warrant to fit a prepayment meter if it would be “severely traumatic to a customer due to an existing vulnerability which relates to their mental capacity and/or psychological state and would be made significantly worse by the experience”.

A customer in this situation would need evidence. Possible sources of evidence include medical evidence (e.g. a letter from a GP or other doctor), a letter or witness statement from a third party who can speak to the impact that fitting a prepayment meter would have on them (e.g. a family member, a social worker or a care assistant), or possibly a witness statement from the customer themself explaining the impact that they anticipate the experience would have on them.

Notice conditions

Another reason to contest a warrant could be if the notice conditions had not been complied with, and the customer had not been given enough time to make the payments.

A customer must be given 28 days to pay before suppliers are entitled to install a prepayment meter. A further seven days’ notice must be given of their intention to replace the existing meter with a prepayment meter.

If a gas worker is seeking entry, 24 hours’ notice must be given. If an electricity worker is seeking entry, two days’ notice must be given. The officer of the supplier seeking to enter must produce a document showing their authority to enter the property. .

In the case these notice periods have not been followed through, the customer may be able to contest the subsequent warrant application. One matter that it may be important to check, depending on the circumstances, is whether notice has been given to the correct individual.

Failure to comply with codes of practice

Suppliers should comply with the Standard Licence Conditions set by Ofgem (which, for example, require them to offer payment plans to customers who are having difficult paying their bills) as well as with any voluntary agreements or code of practices which the supplier has signed up to (for example, many suppliers have pledged never to disconnect vulnerable customers). Each consumer will also have their own contract with their supplier which will set out further terms.

Where a supplier has failed to comply with applicable codes of practice / contractual terms, it may be harder for them to convince the magistrates that they “reasonably require” access to the consumer’s property via a warrant. Consumers could draw any such failings to the magistrates’ attention, to show that the supplier should not be granted a warrant.

If an individual wants to make this argument they should bring to the hearing a copy of the relevant codes of practice / contract, and any correspondence with the supplier.

The warrant should be a proportionate response

A warrant that allows suppliers to force entry into someone’s home may engage the right to respect for your private and family life, under the Human Rights Act. A court should therefore consider whether it is proportionate to grant a warrant if it might interfere with that right. It may be possible to argue in some cases that it would be disproportionate to issue a warrant where the debt is fairly small and the hardship that would be caused to a household is severe.

If a warrant is granted by the judge then the supplier has 28 days to use it before it expires.

To stay up-to-date with the Empowered series and hear more about the ways Good Law Project is responding to the cost of living crisis, sign up here.

This article is based on guidance commissioned by Good Law Project from Emma Mockford of Brick Court Chambers.

The information, content and material above is intended as a general guide, is subject to change and does not constitute any form of legal advice. It should not be relied on or treated as a substitute for specific advice relevant to your particular circumstances. Moreover, not all of the above support may be available across the entire UK.