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Catherine Wolthuizen

"Billing cases were up 47% in October – December compared with the same quarter last year - reflecting persistent affordability challenges"

EWOV typically sees a drop in caseload in the final quarter of the year, as consumers receive the last of the winter bills in October. This year, while overall case numbers declined 16% from the July–September quarter (5,603) to the October–December quarter (4,735), our caseload was up 26% compared with the October-December 2022 quarter (3,761). These increases are consistent with our forecasts for the 2023-4 financial year, which anticipated a substantial post-COVID increase in complaint volumes. The profile of this increase appears to reflect ongoing cost-of-living pressures as consumers experiencing ‘bill shock’ and/or affordability challenges seek validation of the reasons for rising costs or report issues in accessing assistance to pay those costs.

Billing issues continued to feature heavily among reasons for consumers coming to EWOV, accounting for 58% of our caseload in the latest quarter compared with 50% in the October–December quarter last year. Many of these complaints relate to higher underlying costs of energy – principally gas – showing up as more complaints about high gas bills, estimates, inaccurate bills, and leaks.

The pace of the energy transition looks set to continue ramping up, with new subsidies available for Victorian households to install solar and electrify hot water and heating systems. EWOV will continue to contribute our insights to the various policy and regulatory processes underway to ensure the consumer and market experiences of emerging products and services are well understood in the policy debate.

In November we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Essential Services Commission, further strengthening how our organisations work together to ensure energy and water markets are continuing to deliver effective outcomes for consumers.

Throughout 2023, EWOV adopted a new approach to resolution, leveraging our existing powers to apply Fair Offer Assessments. This allows us to draw on our unique perspective on the market and our expertise to identify and determine the fair and reasonable outcome to a case. In doing so, we consider evidence from both scheme participant and consumer and the individual circumstances in light of good industry practice, regulation and our fair and reasonable framework. Following positive feedback from stakeholders, we have developed a model which allows for wider application of this approach which we will be piloting from February 2024 (while also retaining conciliation as a valued resolution methodology). We expect this new model to result in faster, more transparent, more consistent and effective resolution of complaints, delivering benefits for EWOV, scheme participants and consumers.

Looking ahead, we will be watching for issues arising from the floods this summer. While EWOV isn’t a primary responder, we do run community outreach to help connect consumers who may be facing heightened difficulties after a natural disaster. We often receive complaints in the short-term about supply and reconnection issues and in the longer-term complaints about billing, supply, affordability issues and the need for understanding from providers. EWOV has added further information to our website relating to supports available for consumers, which can be found here.

Finally, EWOV is farewelling our Assistant Ombudsman Dispute Resolution Mandy Wilkins later this month. Mandy has been central to the evolution of our dispute resolution operations and approach, our dispute resolution reform, and leaves an impressive legacy of improvement. We wish her all the best for the future.

I look forward to working with my EWOV colleagues and the broader stakeholder community to meet the challenges of 2024 in my second year as Ombudsman at EWOV.

Read on for more detail in the latest edition of Reflect. As always, you can find more data about our casework in the Data Hub.

The big picture

  • EWOV received 4,735 cases in the October-December quarter, a decrease of 16% compared with the July–September quarter. However, cases were also up 26% compared with the same quarter last year - EWOV received 3,761 cases in October-December in 2022.
  • Cases about electricity were down 15% this quarter (2,472) compared to last quarter (2,892), but were up 11% compared with the October-December quarter last year (2,227).
  • Cases about gas were down 18% this quarter (1,891) compared to last quarter (2,310), but up 50% compared to the October-December quarter last year (1,263).
  • Though complaints relating to gas have dropped from last quarter, as a proportion of our total caseload, complaints about gas remain elevated well above the same time last year. This suggests a step change in the composition of our caseload has been driven by higher gas prices.
  • Billing cases were down 15% (2,728 cases) compared with last quarter (3,213 cases). However, billing cases were up 47% compared with the same quarter last year (1,862 cases) and constitutes 58% of EWOV’s total case load, notably higher than 50% in the same quarter last year.
  • Credit cases were down 9% (553 cases) compared with the last quarter (608 cases) but up 7% compared with last year (518 cases).


  • Reflect and Data Hub data is a ‘live’ view of case data up to the end of the previous period.
  • Cases can sometimes be amended, reopened and reallocated — adjustments made to cases in previous quarters will be shown in the previous quarter’s figures within the visualisations.
  • For these reasons, there may be discrepancies between previous quarter data presented in the visualisations and the information presented in past editions of Reflect.

Issues watch

While EWOV received fewer cases in October –December compared with July-September, billing cases remained elevated compared with previous quarters.

We received 829 high bill cases, down 17% compared with the previous quarter (1,003) but up 64% from the same quarter last year (504 cases). Similarly, billing error cases (418) were down 8% compared with the previous quarter (454) but were up 46% compared with the same quarter last year (287 cases). Billing estimation or accuracy cases (231) were down 23% compared with the previous quarter (299) but were up 51% compared with the same quarter last year (153 cases).

Our cases often reflect the issue of consumers having trouble understanding the impact of high gas prices on their bills – such as querying the accuracy of a billing estimate after a high bill. Our technical consultant has reported a number of bill reviews reflect similar – or lower - usage compared with last year, which indicates high bills are better explained by higher underlying gas tariffs. This may also indicate consumers have continued difficulty understanding their own usage and the cost of energy as explained on their bills.

In some cases, an unexpected high bill is driven by infrastructure faults or other billing errors (see below). We also continue to receive a number of cases relating to bulk hot water estimates, which are sometimes further complicated by poor customer service in providing a resolution.

Broadly, credit cases fell this quarter compared with last quarter, with reduced rates of both payment difficulty and disconnection; however, EWOV saw increased cases relating to payment difficulty and disconnections compared with the same quarter last year – suggesting rising affordability problems.

EWOV handled 274 payment difficulty cases in October-December, falling 13% from 315 cases last quarter, though this was up 47% compared to October-December last year (186).

Payment difficulty cases relating to entitlements increased 19% from last quarter (89) to the current quarter (106). These cases relate to consumers encountering difficulty accessing key supports such as Utility Relief Grants (URGs) – encountering difficulties when calling retailers to seek assistance (e.g. long wait times), barriers when seeking assistance to complete URGs application forms over the phone or difficulties receiving forms via email.

Disconnection cases (138 cases - including both imminent and actual disconnections), were down 12% this quarter, from 157 in the July-September quarter. However, disconnections were up 15% compared with the October–December quarter last year (120). Notably, actual disconnections increased slightly from last quarter (69) to this quarter (76), while imminent disconnections fell from last quarter (87) to this quarter (62). We will be watching closely to see whether this trend continues in 2024.

Natural disasters like bushfires or floods create both short-term and long-term issues for consumers. In the short term, consumers can be temporarily disconnected due to damage to the property or infrastructure connecting the property to the grid. In the longer term, reconnection can be both complicated and sometimes costly where new infrastructure (e.g. meters or wiring) needs to be replaced, and there can be ongoing billing issues with providers where infrastructure is not properly installed or configured. EWOV also receives complaints from consumers months and sometimes years after the event, where providers continue to issue bills which might be based on estimated use, including only a daily charge, or addressed “To the Occupier” despite a consumer’s property being unoccupied or destroyed due to flood/fire damage. Some consumers encounter difficulty disconnecting the account for their destroyed property because retailer systems require a final read – which can be impossible where a meter has been destroyed and where property is no longer accessible due to damage.

In both the short term and the longer term it is important for retailers to act with compassion and to take proactive actions not to cause flood or bushfire victims further grief.

Consumer stories

Matthew* (case 00030570) called EWOV with a complaint about his energy retailer in relation to a high bill of $2,439.16. Matthew explained to EWOV that his previous two bills were $235.55 and $196.90, which are indicative of an average bill. His retailer suggested he turn off all appliances and take periodic readings. Matthew did this and found the reading did not change over a 24-hour period. Matthew has a hot water service, a wall heater and a gas stove which isn't used often, however, Matthew noted the gas meter had been changed recently which might have caused this high bill.

After EWOV raised an Assisted Referral, Matthew’s retailer contacted him on multiple occasions to advise it was investigating the meter issue further.

Two weeks later, Matthew called EWOV explaining the gas meter had been replaced that week, but that he had heard nothing from his retailer since the meter replacement. Matthew expressed frustration that the high bill hadn’t been resolved and that his retailer continued to suggest the distributor was responsible.

The matter was then escalated to an EWOV investigation, and through this process the retailer determined a faulty meter may have contributed to the billing spike and offered a credit to reduce the billing in line with historical data. Matthew’s retailer offered to apply a credit of $2,600 to the account reducing the balance owed to $484.41 billed, which Matthew accepted.

*All names have been changed throughout to anonymise consumers.

Carrol* (case 00030646) called EWOV with a complaint about her retailer, regarding accessing a Utility Relief Grant. Carrol explained to EWOV she was relying on the job seeker concession after she had lost her job, and was experiencing financial hardship, specifically difficulty paying her bills.

Carrol had contacted her retailer by email to request a Utility Relief Grant application and received an acknowledgement reply by email on 3 October 2023, outlining the retailer would respond within one to two business days. However, the retailer did not follow up and Carrol received a reminder notice on 23 October for a bill of $277.65 due on 1 November. Carrol expressed concern to EWOV that her electricity may be disconnected or debt collection.

After EWOV raised an Assisted Referral, Carrol advised EWOV on 16 November she still hadn’t heard from her retailer.

In early January, Carrol advised the matter was still unresolved, despite numerous attempts to contact her retailer via its 1800 number and 1300 number. Carrol advised she still required assistance with her application for a Utility Relief Grant, and was concerned her concession might not be valid by the time the application went through.

As a result, the case was escalated to an investigation, and the retailer subsequently agreed to waive the outstanding bill of $277.65 up to the period ending 19 September 2023, as well as the subsequent balance of $177.44 for the billing period up to 13 December 2023. This left a balance of $0. Carrol’s retailer flagged this would enable the customer to apply for a Utility Relief Grant in the future.

In October 2022, Jodie* (case 0029955) called EWOV with a complaint about her electricity retailer in relation to occupier bills. Jodie had received a bill of $143.17 addressed “To the Occupier”. Jodie’s property was flooded in the September 2022 floods and the house was rendered uninhabitable. In August 2022, Jodie requested her retailer to disconnect the property and issue a final bill. Jodie informed her retailer the main switch was off as water went through the wiring, rendering the house uninhabitable.

After EWOV raised an Assisted Referral, Jodie’s retailer informed EWOV of repeated attempts to contact her to discuss the matter and shared an email in which it formally apologised for the issue. Jodie’s retailer confirmed the Electricity Occupant Account had been disconnected for safety and also confirmed it was not the retailer for any gas supply to the property.

*Note: this is an Assisted Referral case, however EWOV did receive a response from the scheme participant to help validate the facts of the complaint.

Issues in focus: Energy Bill Relief Fund

EWOV has received a number of cases relating to the rollout of the Commonwealth Government’s Energy Bill Relief Fund, which began on 1 August 2023. In particular, we received a number of complaints relating to eligibility issues which appear to stem from retailer processes and staff training around the rollout.

Our cases highlight a range of issues. Most prominent are a number of cases where consumers with long-standing valid concessions (e.g. low income health care card) have been advised by their retailer they are not eligible for the bill relief. EWOV has also received cases where consumers with a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card – an expanded eligibility criterion - have experienced pushback from retailers around eligibility, creating barriers to accessing help.

EWOV has also received complaints from consumers who have had difficulty accessing Energy Bill Relief when they switched to a new retailer early in August. Switching created an issue because retailers that held the billing rights for a customer on 1 August 2023 were also responsible for providing the Energy Bill Relief. When consumers switched retailers within the first half of August, this created complications where the old retailer had closed the account.

On reviewing cases received about concessions issues, one retailer in particular has prompted a number of cases relating to eligibility – suggesting it may not have effectively trained staff or incorporated this rebate into its billing system.

*Many of the cases included were referred back to the business for resolution and were not progressed further by EWOV – referred to as an Assisted Referral (AR). After EWOV refers a complaint back to a retailer, EWOV does not always receive a response from the scheme participant so cannot always validate the material facts of Assisted Referral complaint.

Consumer stories relating to Energy Bill Relief

Jasdeep* (case 00031247) is dissatisfied with his provider regarding his Energy Bill Relief (EBR) application. Jasdeep holds a Commonwealth Seniors Health Card (CSHC). Jasdeep’s retailer has insisted that CSHC holders are ineligible for EBR. Jasdeep contacted Services Australia, which advised he provide his CSHC information via his retailer’s website. Jasdeep completed these steps, submitting all required documentation to his retailer, and confirmed with Services Australia nothing further was required for the EBR to be applied to his account.

After EWOV’s Assisted Referral process, the retailer contacted Jasdeep, still maintaining he was ineligible. Jasdeep shared a link highlighting the eligibility criteria to show he would be eligible. The retailer subsequently agreed that Jasdeep was eligible, and that the system had not let the retailer make the payment. However, the issue was still not resolved.

The matter was escalated to an EWOV investigation, and at this point the retailer offered to apply a credit of $250 to the account upon closure of the complaint, bringing Jasdeep’s balance to $104.99 credit. The retailer advised it would then apply for both the March and June Energy Bill Relief, which would then allow the Energy Bill Relief payments to Jasdeep’s account.

Jeff* (case 00029143) is dissatisfied with retailer A in relation to the Energy Bill Relief Fund. Jeff contacted his retailer on multiple occasions regarding the Energy Bill Relief Fund to advise that he had not received the relief fund in his account. Retailer A recorded Jeff’s concession details and provided consent in myGov for details to be confirmed with Centrelink. Jeff told EWOV retailer A had confirmed that it had not been paid, and subsequently informed him that that his new electricity provider – retailer B – was responsible for the payment.

Jeff contacted Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (DFFH) for further assistance and it confirmed retailer A was responsible for the payment, as it was his retailer on 1 August 2023. Jeff was a customer with Retailer A until 6 August 2023. Retailer A had advised Jeff it could not assist further as his account had been closed.

EWOV raised an Assisted Referral with the retailer but closed the complaint after no further contact from the consumer.

Anush* (case 00030644) is dissatisfied with her retailer in relation to the Energy Bill Relief Fund. Anush was advised by her retailer A that she had a credit on her account and a refund would be arranged. Anush contacted retailer A after three weeks as she had not received her refund. Retailer A advised there was no refund, and the credit was a government rebate. Retailer A informed her it would be retaining the rebate until such a time Anush decided to return as a customer. Anush had no intentions of returning to retailer A as she had transferred to retailer B. Anush requested that the rebate be transferred to retailer B, however, retailer A refused.

After an EWOV Assisted Referral, we received confirmation from Anush that the matter had been resolved to her satisfaction.

Community engagement

EWOV Outreach

We focus on community outreach and engagement to increase the accessibility and awareness of EWOV and to improve Victorians’ experiences of energy and water markets. Our outreach work helps to build relationships with organisations that work with Victorian energy and water consumers who may be at the greatest risk of experiencing financial and other vulnerabilities.

In the final quarter of 2023, EWOV’s outreach efforts increased to meet the growing demands of the living costs for Victorian residents. We continued our work with our partnered community organisations such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), Dijrra and South East Community Links, attending their offices to provide invaluable support to some of the most financially disadvantaged and vulnerable members of the Victorian community.

In October, our outreach team attended the Gippsland region to grow awareness of our services in Mallacoota, Orbost, Bairnsdale and Morwell. During this time, EWOV outreach staff working in these regions were caught up in both bushfire emergencies and flood events. Staff were unhurt but saw first-hand the impact that these events have on residents and their communities. Working with the community’s Disaster Recovery Committees, we witnessed how small communities rally together to ensure vulnerable residents are protected, appropriately updated, and information is shared in an organised and cohesive manner. EWOV has since explored how we can improve access to dispute resolution support for communities impacted by natural disasters.

In November, EWOV travelled to the greater Mildura region providing direct outreach support to Murrayville, Ouyen and Mildura communities across a five-day period. Training and support were provided to the intake and financial counselling teams from Neighbourhood Centres and Mallee Family Care. EWOV also provided workshops direct to consumers through the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities Council (SMECC), delivering workshops with a group of refugee participants, helping people to understand how to read their energy bills, how to reduce costs, concession eligibility, and ongoing bill affordability. EWOV was fortunate to be able to participate in a Conversation Reading Café Class, an award-winning program run by SMECC, which provides a setting for volunteers to help people from refugee backgrounds practise their English.

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In November 2023, Ombudsman Catherine Wolthuizen attended the Energy Retail Excellence conference, participating in a larger session looking at how the sector can build trust through social licence and customer-focused business models, answering the question: How does the sector most effectively address energy affordability?

The panel was moderated by Aaron Yuen, Director, Analysis and Reform, Energy, at the ESC. Other panellists included Louisa Kinnear, Chief Executive Officer, Jacana Energy; Ezra Hirawani, Chief Executive Officer, Nau Mai Ra; Geoffrey Rutledge, Deputy Director-General, Environment Water and Emissions Reduction, Environment Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (ACT).

In a wide-ranging discussion about energy affordability, Catherine emphasised the need for retailers to help address the barriers to help consumers get onto the Best Offer, more proactively flag URGs to low-income customers with outstanding arrears; and to proactively conduct concession checks – all issues identified in EWOV’s case data.


Our latest submissions:

  • Joint submission to the AER’s Review of Consumer Protections Review (October 2023) (not published) – Energy and Water Ombudsman schemes (EWOs) agreed that the National Energy Customer Framework is not fit-for-purpose for the future energy market, and that the Australian Consumer Law does not adequately mitigate risks from new products and services. EWOs called for the access to free and timely dispute resolution to be included as a principle of the new framework.
  • Submission to the Essential Service Commission’s consultation paper - Revoking the Electricity System Code (November 2023)EWOV recommended that the Commission should consider how ombudsman schemes can play a key role as a preferred external dispute resolution mechanism for new transmission projects and for obligations for transmission network service providers to develop internal dispute resolution and external dispute resolution.
  • Submission to the Distribution System Code of Practice review: Draft decision (December 2023) – EWOV welcomed new provision of information obligations on gas distributors for both disconnection and abolishment of gas connections.


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