Magistrates courts in England and Wales are to immediately stop hearing and ruling on applications from energy companies to forcibly install prepayment meters.
One of the country's most senior judges said that the cases must be halted because of growing public concern. This comes only days after it was revealed that courts have been waving through applications to install these meters. The energy regulator Ofgem has asked all companies to suspend forcible installations.
The legal order to stop these court cases comes from Lord Justice Edis - the judge who oversees the workings of all courts. He said that all magistrates must "act proportionately and with regard to the human rights of the people affected, in particular any people with vulnerability."
A warrant officer, who has applied for prepayment meter warrants on behalf of energy companies for two decades, told the BBC TV Newsnight programme that he welcomed the decision but claimed it has been a serious concern for several years.
And a person involved in installing these meters (who didn’t want to reveal his identity) said: "I would find cases where there were vulnerabilities and draw the magistrate's attention to that and they would then refuse the warrant. None of that exists anymore."
He continued: "I have seen 200 - 300 applications submitted in one go, but I have colleagues who have emailed spreadsheets containing thousands of addresses which are then processed in around 15 minutes."
Lord Justice Edis said that while energy firms could still make a case for a warrant to be heard, they would have to first satisfy a court "in detail as to the integrity of their procedures, in particular relating to the vulnerability of occupiers."
The Times newspaper found that debt agents for British Gas had broken into vulnerable people's homes to fit meters. Chris O'Shea, chief executive of Centrica (the parent company of British Gas) said he was horrified at the findings, and the firm said it would suspend forcefully installing prepayment meters until after the winter.
The Views of the Experts
The Government’s Business Secretary Grant Shapps said that Ofgem had allowed itself to have "the wool pulled over their eyes" over prepayment meters being force-fitted, taking companies "at face value" instead of listening to customers.
Graham Stuart, the Energy Minister, said he had met with the boss of Ofgem and said the government expected "strong and immediate action where suppliers fall short of their obligations".
Ed Miliband, the Shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change, said the response was "simply not good enough", and accused the government of "sitting on their hands and being far too slow to act."
Milliband continued: "Ofgem did reviews in September and November and highlighted the problem - where was the government? In early January Citizens Advice reported that three million people had been disconnected by the back door."
Peter Smith, Director of Policy at the fuel poverty charity National Energy Action, said magistrates' courts had been "far too quick to rubber stamp batches of warrants, with little or no scrutiny. It provides some relief that magistrates are now aware of the significance of their actions and not blind to the terrible impacts to vulnerable people if they are forced onto prepayment meters against their will."
Darren Bugg, Editor of the Customer Service Blog, said: "Obviously it’s a good thing that action is finally being taken to protect vulnerable customers. But there is an even more important point about prepayment energy meters that is being ignored. When these meters are fitted, the customer ends up paying for their energy at a far higher tariff than people who pay through monthly or quarterly billing. But the people who are forced to have these prepayment meters installed are the ones who can least afford to pay their bills in the first place!"
"I completely understand why it is sometimes necessary to install prepayment meters. But when this happens, it is totally unfair to penalise people with higher prices. Everyone should have access to cheaper tariffs, even if they are forced to go onto a prepayment meter."
Some of the materials used in this article have been taken from the BBC News website. We thank the BBC for use of these materials.
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