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Catherine Wolthuizen

"We launched a pilot for our new case handling model. The new model will continue to leverage our existing conciliation expertise but incorporates a more investigative approach."

The first quarter of the calendar year is often a quieter period for EWOV. However, our caseload remained elevated between January–March, up 31% compared with the same quarter last year.

On 13 February, storms damaged transmission towers and other key distribution infrastructure, resulting in electricity outages for more than half a million Victorians at its peak [1]. We saw a sharp spike in complaints, triggered by these outages, totalling 322 cases in February and March. One provider, whose network was particularly impacted, has established a fund to help customers who are unable to access other government supports (see Issues watch for details).

In February 2024, we launched a pilot for our new case handling model. The new model will continue to leverage our existing conciliation expertise but incorporates a more investigative approach, applying Fair and Reasonable Assessments in a timely manner with increased transparency for both consumers and providers. When making these assessments, we consider the fair and reasonable outcome having regard to the information provided by both parties; the individual circumstances of the complaint; any relevant laws, codes and regulations; good industry practice; and our fair and reasonable framework.

A key benefit of the new model is simplifying the number of steps and stages of the current conciliation process. The pilot concluded on 30 April and demonstrated that the new model can deliver the intended benefits: faster resolution; more transparency; more consistent and effective resolution of complaints. We will be reviewing the process and outcomes, and communicating next steps with all stakeholders shortly.

In March, we welcomed a new Assistant Ombudsman, Dispute Resolution — Wendy Guy. Wendy brings a deep commitment to the role of external dispute resolution (EDR) in supporting individual redress and wider improvements to consumer outcomes. Wendy was previously the Assistant Ombudsman at the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), where she also led policy and systemic issues work. Wendy previously worked at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and as a senior legal professional in commercial litigation. 

We have proposed amendments to our Charter, seeking to expand our jurisdiction to include complaints relating to voluntary land access and increase the monetary value cap for these types of complaints; to increase our general monetary value cap for binding decisions in line with other modern ombudsman schemes including the Energy and Water Ombudsman NSW (EWON) and the TIO; to ensure it is consistent with Australian Consumer Law; and to explicitly refer to our role as a recognised EDR scheme for complaints relating to privacy, credit reporting and consumer data rules. We’re engaging with members and stakeholders about these proposed changes.

Read on for more detail in the latest edition of Reflect.


The big picture

  • We received 4,435 cases in the January–March 2024 quarter, down 5% from the October–December quarter 2023 (4,666 cases). However, our caseload was up 31% compared with the same quarter last year — we received 3,381 cases in the January–March quarter in 2023.
  • Cases about electricity were up 6% in January–March (2,566) compared to last quarter (2,430) but were up 31% compared with the January–March quarter last year (1,965).
  • Cases about gas were down 23% in January–March (1,420) compared to last quarter (1,856), but up 36% compared to the January–March quarter last year (1,041).
  • Billing cases in the January–March quarter (2,139 cases) were down 20% compared with last quarter (2,678 cases). However, Billing cases were up 30% compared with the same quarter last year (1,643 cases).
  • Though complaints relating to gas have dropped from last quarter as a proportion of our total caseload, complaints about high gas bills remain elevated compared with the same time last year.
  • Credit cases in the January–March quarter were down 2% (552 cases) compared with last quarter (543 cases) but up 11% compared with the January–March quarter last year (489 cases).
  • Supply cases in the January–March quarter were down 2% (457 cases) compared with the last quarter (543 cases) but up 11% compared with the January–March quarter last year (156 cases).
  • Unplanned outages resulting from the storms on 13 February prompted a significant number of complaints about electricity distribution providers for the quarter. EWOV received 322 unplanned outage complaints in the latest quarter, up 445% compared with 72 cases in the January–March quarter last year.

Cases can sometimes be amended, reopened and reallocated — For these reasons, there may be discrepancies between the previous quarter and the information presented in past editions of Reflect.

Issues watch

Following the storms on 13 February, we received an increase in complaints relating to unplanned outages. We received 322 cases across the quarter relating to unplanned off-supply, with complaints stemming from the duration of the outage (179) or from damage or loss (143). By comparison, we received 72 cases relating to unplanned off-supply in the January–March quarter of 2023.

In cases relating to duration, consumers were often unhappy with how information about the outage and timeframe for restoration were communicated. For example, consumers reported difficulty accessing information, not enough live/up-to-date information, conflicting information, and generic rather than place-specific information. A number of cases reflect issues with accessing the Prolonged Power Outage Payment — a support entitlement made available where consumers are off energy supply for seven days. Issues include delays with the processing of applications, consumers not being told why they weren’t approved for this entitlement, and disputes about how eligibility for this entitlement was calculated.

In cases relating to damage or loss, consumers were often seeking assistance and/or compensation for damage or loss associated with an unplanned outage including spoilt food and medicines being rendered unsafe, damaged household appliances or goods due to a fault, and being home to facilitate repairs leading to lost work. In other cases, consumers reported difficulties restoring power to their homes due to damage to wiring or infrastructure. These consumers noted repeated visits from their distributor including partial restoration of power, and requirements for new metering and infrastructure.

As the customer stories below show, a number of consumers expressed frustration and dissatisfaction at not being eligible for compensation for loss they experienced as a result of the outages.

AusNet, whose distribution network was primarily affected, has introduced a new $12 million Energy Resilience Community Fund. This initiative recognises communities severely impacted by the storm events in February this year and other electricity reliability challenges. The Fund aims to:

  • provide support to individuals and small businesses most impacted by the February storm-related power outages who are not eligible for other relief payments
  • support existing community facilities used during and after extreme weather events
  • collaborate with small businesses on support programs and energy storage solutions to aid business continuity during future weather events.

Consumers affected by outages who were not eligible for a Prolonged Power Outage Payment can apply for a hardship grant under the Energy Resilience Community Fund.

High bills were the primary issue type for the quarter, across electricity, gas and water.

We received fewer high bill cases in January–March than in the previous October–December quarter. However, we received significantly more high bill cases compared to the January–March quarter in 2023.

We received 473 high bill cases, down 29% compared with the previous quarter (664) but up 55% from the same quarter last year (306 cases).

High gas bills remain a primary driver of our caseload. In the January–March quarter, we received 237 cases, down 41% from 399 cases last quarter, but up 69% from the 140 cases in the January–March quarter last year.

Investigating the drivers of high bills is a complex process of elimination. These Investigations can involve a review by EWOV’s technical advisor to determine whether there are infrastructure faults involved, either on the consumer side (for example, issues with appliances or changes to consumption) or the provider side (for example, burst pipes or issues with meter read accuracy).

Consumers reported a range of challenges accessing supports, including difficulty when calling to speak to someone about accessing Utility Relief Grants (URGs) and issues accessing URGs through their preferred method of contact, such as being sent a form rather than an email, or not being helped over the phone.

In some cases, consumers advised they applied for URGs through their provider, or even received an approval from the Department of Fairness, Families and Housing, but still received bills while the URG was being processed, rather than the account being placed on hold until the URG was applied.

In other cases, consumers reported they had been offered a payment plan but not offered an URG from their provider.

Customer stories

Bianca* contacted us online with a complaint about her electricity retailer in relation to a disconnection notice. Bianca lives in social housing and electricity is provided in an embedded network. Bianca told us she was in financial hardship, driven in part by recently losing a family member and being unable to work. She had previously been on a hardship plan, but it had been cancelled as she had been unable to communicate with her provider during work hours.

Due to the nature of Bianca’s financial hardship and vulnerability, we escalated this case to an Investigation, bypassing the usual Assisted Referral stage. As part of our Investigation, the provider told us it understood the consumer was in payment difficulty, based on the previous hardship plan and frequent missed payments, but was having trouble engaging with Bianca to provide suitable assistance. As the account was in arrears of over $1,000 and no payment arrangements were in place, the provider sent the consumer a disconnection notice. The provider told us that our intervention would assist it to set up arrangements with the customer and provide the opportunity to establish an ongoing communication plan.

As a result of our Investigation, the provider set up an affordable fortnightly payment plan ($100) that took into account Bianca’s financial situation, the arrears and her ongoing usage, with flexibility for Bianca to pay extra if and when she was able to. In addition, it agreed to match payments up to $600 to further assist with reducing arrears, and provided advice on the Non-Mains Utility Relief Grant and the Non-Mains Energy Concession that Bianca may be eligible for, to reduce ongoing costs and prevent further arrears.

* Names have been changed

Sandra* engaged a plumber in August 2020, who identified an internal leak at her property, but advised a repair wasn’t possible because the stop tap was faulty. Job notes confirmed the water provider repaired the stop tap within two hours of the plumber’s report.

There was no further contact until February 2021, at which point Jim (Sandra’s partner) contacted the water provider to seek a rebate for the internal leak. The provider advised Jim to call back with Sandra, in order to be added as an authorised member of the account. Jim made repeated attempts to contact the water provider in 2023 (without authority to act). The provider was experiencing high contact volumes, and so initially advised a reply would be delayed, and subsequently that Jim was not authorised to act. The provider attempted to contact Sandra to obtain authorisation without success, and closed its file.

Our Investigation determined that the failure to respond for an extended period was likely to have caused undue inconvenience or distress. The provider agreed and offered a payment of more than $400 in recognition of the customer service experience. In our view, the amount exceeded the amount we would typically award for a customer service shortfall.

The provider also applied a 50% reduction to the estimated water loss and 100% of the excess sewerage disposal charge which, in the circumstances, exceeded the minimum standards set by the Guideline for Unexplained High Usage and Undetected Leak Enquiries. We noted the provider made this offer even though the application for a rebate was not made within the 90-day timeframe, and a plumber’s report confirming the leak repair was not available.

The reduction and customer service gesture reduced the outstanding arrears by more than $1,000. The remaining balance of around $6,000 had accumulated over the past three years. We determined that Sandra should engage with her provider about a repayment plan to address these outstanding arrears.

* Names have been changed

Evelyn* called us in March with a complaint about her distributor, following the February storm event. Evelyn had been off-supply for three days, and had lost a fridge and freezer worth of food. As Evelyn lives with a disability and relies on a pension, she was concerned about the loss of food and not able to replace it.

After we raised an Assisted Referral, Evelyn called us again and told us that she was unhappy with the response she had received from her distributor. The distributor had advised Evelyn that she cannot be compensated for food loss and that Guaranteed Service Level (GSL) provisions are designed to compensate customers who are off supply for extended periods. The distributor advised Evelyn to reach out to her retailer or Centrelink to understand what other financial support might be available. Evelyn was unhappy with this response, as she considered Centrelink unrelated to the storms or her complaint, and wanted to proceed with an Investigation.

Following our Investigation, we assessed that the distributor had provided the correct advice. In any event, it confirmed that Evelyn would receive a $90 GSL payment within three months. The distributor also acknowledged Evelyn’s financial circumstances, and reiterated that support was available from her retailer if Evelyn experienced payment difficulty.

* Names have been changed

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 last quarter, our outreach team has seen a sharp rise in requests to provide new partnership support opportunities and engagement with community organisations across the state, driven by increasing community hardship linked to the cost-of-living crisis. We have continued our weekly support to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), and began a new fortnightly partnership with South East Community Links (SECL) providing on-site support and advice to both financial counselling staff and consumers.

On 2 March 2024, our outreach team attended the International Student Summit at the Melbourne Town Hall, which saw a record turnout. Students presented with concerns around ongoing affordability, concession eligibility and application, and sought further information about embedded networks and their rights. We continued attending Sisters Day Out events with Djirra in Abbotsford, Melton, Bairnsdale and Portland.  These events allow us the privilege of hearing the personal stories of our Indigenous communities, who are more likely to experience financial disadvantage and other vulnerabilities than non-Indigenous Victorians.

In February, the outreach team delivered several presentations to Anglicare and the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA) staff working on the Energy Assistance Program (EAP). These sessions were well-attended and targeted to the specific issues EAP staff are facing each day when providing vulnerable consumers with assistance. Our partnership with Anglicare has provided direct support to EAP staff to escalate matters of urgency directly to our No Wrong Doors Referral Partner, providing scope for EAP staff to support a larger number of at-risk consumers.

Our outreach team also attended the Financial Counselling Victoria Summit held in March. The summit provided an opportunity for financial counsellors across Victoria to come together and discuss the cost-of-living crisis and its impact across the sector in many areas. Our exhibitor’s table was well-attended throughout the event, where our staff heard from financial counsellors who are seeing rapid increases in service requests, and a sharp rise in the level of utility arrears and debt.   

In the last quarter, we continued our ongoing attendance at the Charlton Community Reference Group meetings. The Community Reference Group (CRG) acts as an engagement mechanism between communities and Transmission Company Victoria, who are tasked with the construction of the VNI West transmission project from Bulgana to Dinawan in Western Victoria. EWOV has recently been recognised by the ESC as the dispute resolution service for complaints about land access. Our attendance at the CRG continues our important work providing rural communities, that are planning to host transmission infrastructure and electricity transmission companies, with a forum to resolve land access complaints.


In March 2023, Ombudsman Catherine Wolthuizen attended the Financial Counselling Victoria Summit, participating in a panel discussion around the topic of climate change and natural disasters (and the flow-on effect for disadvantaged communities and consumers) and energy affordability more broadly.

The panel was moderated by Sue Fraser, OAM, Senior Manager, Uniting Vic/Tas. Other panelists included Stephanie Jolly, Executive General Manager, Consumers, Policy and Markets, Australian Energy Regulator; Ciara Sterling, Founding CEO and Director of the Thriving Communities Partnership; Annabelle Butler, Industry Representative, Australian Financial Complaints Authority.

Catherine highlighted a range of issues identified from our cases and possible solutions including the need for retailers to: help address the barriers to consumers receiving the Best Offer; proactively identify entitlements such as URGs to low-income consumers with outstanding arrears; and to proactively conduct concession checks.

Also in March, we held our CCG forum with representatives from financial counselling organisations, community legal organisations and consumer policy organisations. We outlined our new case handling model and proposed changes to our Charter. We briefed the group on our observations in relation to affordability, including the application of the Payment Difficulty Framework. We heard key affordability challenges from the CCG, including:

  • Some consumers are struggling to manage energy costs, and consequently are going without essential goods or are under-consuming or using public amenities to avoid consuming energy at home. This is more common among older Victorians, who have a stronger preference for avoiding debt.
  • Consumers experiencing payment difficulty continue to face barriers in accessing entitlements. This can be driven by a lack of awareness of supports available, difficulties with engaging with their retailer due to communication barriers or call centre processes (such as inflexible scripting or time constraints).

CCG members suggested key improvements including:

  • Changes should be considered for improving access to URGs and concessions, and ensuring people can receive the Best Offer.
  • Policymakers should consider ways to ensure people can access affordable energy, including by ensuring the renewable energy transition is equitable.


Our latest submissions:

Australian Energy Regulator Export Guidance Note
We joined other EWOs in supporting the intent of the draft interim export limit guidance note, particularly with regard to information requirements and dispute resolution provisions.

Read the submission

Australian Energy Regulator exemptions framework for embedded networks
We joined other EWOs in outlining the various submissions pointing to the consumer harm and issues arising from embedded networks.  

Read the submission

Telemarketing and doorknocking ban under the Victorian Energy Upgrades (VEU) program
We supported the ban on telemarketing and doorknocking. Our submission also flagged the need for appropriate EDR as is required to build trust and confidence in electrification activities, and included recent out of jurisdiction cases relating to VEU products.  

Read the submission


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