Backbill following alleged meter tamper (D/97/1)

Case number: D/97/1
Date of Decision: 24 November 1997
Decision accepted by the customer: Yes

A customer called EIOV and stated that following a visit from two company representatives to his business premises, the company had accused him of tampering with his meter, and had issued him with a backbill totalling $17,183.96, this being the amount that the company calculated the customer had been undercharged for electricity consumption for the period from 1 February 1991 to 30 January 1996. The customer stated that he had no knowledge of the meter tampering, and that he believed that the amount of the backbill was excessive and that the amount of the back bill had been wrongly calculated.

The company stated that it had not accused the customer of tampering with his meter, but that it had based its request for payment on its supply of electricity to the customer in good faith, and that it was possible that the meter had been interfered with prior to the customer's purchase of the property.

The company provided EIOV with details of the billing history and electricity usage at the customer's property and information relating to the manner by which the amount of the backbill was calculated. EIOV also sought the opinion of an independent electrical engineer.

The Ombudsman took into consideration the Supply and Sale Code, on 3 October 1994 (repealed with effect from 31 January 1997), clause 3.3(a)(vi) on undercharging and overcharging; the Electricity Industry Supply and Sale Code gazetted on 8 November 1996 (effective from 1 February 1997), clauses on undercharging (7.5.1, 7.5.2, 7.5.3), clauses on illegal use (3.5.1), clauses on supply and metering equipment (3.3.1); and the Retail Tariff Metering Code, clause 8.1 on maintenance.

In making her Binding Decision, the Ombudsman found that from the documentary and other evidence available it was clear that the customer's meter had been tampered prior to his purchase of the premises and that consequently he did not knowingly contribute to the "use of electricity otherwise than in accordance" with the Electricity Industry Supply and Sale Code 1997, clause 7.5.3. From the meter readings following the repair of the meter it is also clear that the customer had benefited from the use of electricity at a much reduced rate for the entire period of his occupancy. It appeared, therefore, that both the customer and the company were the "innocent victims" of the tamper.

The Ombudsman further found that the manner in which the company informed the customer of the amended account following its discovery of the tampered meter was not conducive to assisting the customer to understand or accept any responsibility for the payment of the additional amount the company required. The fact that these calculations contained inaccuracies bore out the customer's concerns. The Ombudsman noted that the customer purchased the business on the basis of electricity records which were considerably lower than is now the case. In addition, technical advice was that this tamper should have been identified by the company at a much earlier date.

The Ombudsman made a binding decision that the company recalculate the backbill using as a basis the customer's average usage over the entire period of the backbill and that the company restrict the period of the backbill to the twelve months prior to 30 January 1996 resulting in an amount payable by the customer of $2,222.82.

The Ombudsman directed that the company issue the customer with options for the payment of this amount, with a minimum period for payment of six months.