County court judgements on the rise for those in energy debt 

Citizen’s Advice have reported a sharp rise this year in people receiving a county court judgement from their energy supplier.  

Thankfully, figures are still relatively low. However, it’s feared that the number of households facing county court judgments for not paying energy bills has begun to double. For those currently struggling to meet soaring energy costs, it’s another unwelcome rise they can do without!

What is a County Court Judgement? 

Also known as a CCJ; a county court judgement is a court order given to someone who hasn’t settled a bill or paid back money they’ve borrowed. If you receive a judgement – it means that a court has formally decided that you owe the money. 

The order will arrive by post and explain: 

  • the amount of money you owe 
  • how to pay – this can be in full or in instalments
  • the deadline date that you must pay by 
  • who you must pay the debt to 

You will be given a month to pay the full amount. If you fail to meet the deadline – the judgement will be kept on record for 6 years. This can make it harder to get credit. It may also result in higher costs for future loans, credit cards, and mortgages.

Citizen’s Advice warns that county court judgement’s can force people onto payment plans that they can’t keep up with. Driving them even further into debt! 

Why are County Court Judgement’s increasing? 

County court judgements on unpaid energy bills are believed to have increased since Ofgem tightened the rules on installing prepayment meters.

Energy companies first introduced forced instalment of prepayment meters and switching smart meters to pre-pay mode in households with outstanding energy bills as a measure hoped to prevent customers getting into further energy debt.

After cases of energy company installation malpractice emerged, the ruling was amended. Ofgem updated the rules so that meters could no longer be fitted by force into homes of vulnerable customers. It also decided that they should only be fitted as an overall last resort once all other options have been exhausted.

Energy companies were instead instructed to intervene earlier; placing customers already in debt or at risk of becoming in debt on manageable prepayment plans. Although these measures were designed to protect the most vulnerable customers – it’s thought that this new ruling may have caused more people to fall into energy debt! 

The Prepayment Meter U-Turn

In an attempt to stop the rise, Ofgem recently granted EDF, Octopus and Scottish Power permission to resume forced installations. This policy U-turn comes only a year after the entire practice was completely suspended after British Gas representatives were found to be forcing their way into the homes of vulnerable people; breaking Ofgem’s strict ruling.

According to Tim Jones, Ofgem’s director general for markets; customer protection is the company’s number one priority. 

“We’ve made clear that suppliers must exhaust all options before considering forced installation of a prepayment meter, and consumers can help themselves by reaching out to their supplier as soon as possible if they think they won’t be able to pay their bill, so payment options can be discussed.” 

While he acknowledges that he doesn’t want to see any repeat of last year’s improper installation practices; Mr Jones believes that allowing customers to build up large amounts of debt is not the answer to the problem either.

On the opposite end of the scale, campaigners are calling for a complete ban on the reintroduction of forced prepayment meter installation.

Simon Francis of The End Fuel Poverty Coalition said, ‘It is outrageous that energy firms are seeking to use the courts to force people onto to prepayment meters in the middle of winter.’ He also added further concerns about the processes that energy companies have in place to adequately assess vulnerable people.

There’s no doubt that energy regulators are facing a difficult dilemma in finding the best course of action to take. One that can quash energy debt without the need for county court judgements – whilst still ensuring the most vulnerable in society are kept safe!

 So, what are the exact rules? 

The latest prepayment fitting rules state that meters cannot be fitted in homes where occupants are: 

  • 75 or over – unless someone younger also lives in the home. 
  • have a child under the age of two. 
  • have a terminal illness or a condition that would worsen in cold temperatures. 

Any energy company found to be breaching these rules faces prosecution and unlimited fines. They are also required to refit a standard meter within 24 hours and pay compensation to the affected household.

Dealing with energy debt 

Although Ofgem, consumer groups and energy companies may still collectively be at a loss at how to solve energy debt for now – there is one point that they all agree on. If you’re one of the growing number of people struggling to pay energy bills – early intervention is vital to avoid court action being taken against you! Here are a few recommended tips that can help:

Contact your energy supplier as soon as possible! They are obliged to outline all your options and organise a manageable payment plan for you.

You are also entitled to ask for:

  • a bill review to check that the amount you have been charged is correct.
  • a payment break until you are in a position where you can afford to pay. 
  • a rate reduction so that the debt is more affordable. 
  • advice on how you can reduce your energy usage. 
  • more time between payments. 
  • access to hardship funds and charity grants. 
  • help in applying for available government grants if they’ve not already been automatically applied for. This may include grants such as ‘Cold Weather Payments’.  Other available government help you may qualify for includes ECO4, the Great British Insulation and the Boiler Replacement Schemes.

If you can’t pay your energy bill, your supplier is obliged to give you at least 28 days to repay debts before court action can be issued. After this, your supplier can install a prepayment meter. However, you must have been given at least 7 days’ notice before this can be done. 

Reiterating the original prepayment rules of 2018, Bionic business energy comparison expert, Les Roberts said: “The prepayment meter should be a last resort. Your provider should first offer you a repayment plan or help to set you up with a repayment plan through your state benefits.” 

However, once all these conditions are met and all help has been offered – if a customer still refuses to pay their bill; energy companies can apply for a county court judgement to install a prepayment meter or change smart meter settings to ‘pay-as-you-go’. 

Contact Energy Advice Helpline

Here at Energy Advice Helpline, we’re continually trying to find ways to help you improve the energy efficiency of your home and lower your energy bills. For more tips and advice; take a look at our support hub.

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