With rising power and water prices, consumers need to know their rights when it comes to disconnection of gas, electricity or water, and help with paying bills. If you're experiencing financial hardship, you have certain rights to assistance and you can't just be disconnected for not paying your bill on time.
Payment difficulty or financial hardship is generally defined as someone who wants to pay their bill but isn't able to do so within the retailer's time frame.
It only takes one small thing to put someone into financial hardship, says Stella Avramopoulos, CEO of Kildonan Uniting Care. As utility prices have risen,so have the number of people in paid employment taking up retailers' customer hardship programs. Although people in paid employment may not qualify for all the government concessions, they may be eligible for various hardship programs, she says. The problem is, many people don't know how to navigate the system that's been set up to help.
What to do if you're having trouble paying your power or water bills
- Contact your retailer before your bill is due to let them know you're having difficulty.
- Your retailer is required to offer you a payment plan. Only agree to a payment plan that is realistic in your circumstances as if you default you can be disconnected.
- If you can't agree to an affordable payment plan or if you think you've been wrongfully disconnected, contact your local ombudsman.
- See a financial counsellor. Services are free for anyone in financial hardship. Call 1800 007 007 from anywhere in Australia to speak to someone over the phone or go to Financial Counselling Australia to find one in your local area.
- See if you're eligible for any concessions, such as rebates or vouchers.
- Reduce your energy and water use. Most states and territories have a scheme to identify resource intensive appliances for those experiencing financial hardship.
What help is available?
The level of help you may be eligible for varies for energy and water and depends on your state or territory. Find out your rights in relation to:
The following kinds of assistance are usually available:
- Payment plans to pay off your debt in instalments.
- Retailer's financial hardship program.
- Various rebates and concessions which differ around the country.
- Speaking to a financial counsellor free of charge.
- Getting advice on how to reduce your energy use.
Payment plans and financial hardship programs
What help you receive through the retailer will depend on your situation, but as a minimum utility retailers are generally obliged to offer you extra time to pay through a payment plan if you've told them you're having difficulty paying. As long as you make the required repayments you can't be disconnected.
You may also be considered eligible for a retailer's hardship program. Being on the hardship program may offer other benefits such as the waiver of late payment fees, energy efficiency advice and referrals to government concessions. All electricity and gas providers have financial hardship policies in place outlining how they'll help customers experiencing financial difficulty and many water retailers also have financial hardship programs.
Concessions and financial counselling
There are various government and state-based concessions available. ASIC provides a list of concessions for energy and water in each state and territory. Free financial counsellors and customer hardship officers at your utility retailer can help you apply for these vouchers.
Your energy rights
In New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT, consumers' energy rights are laid out in the National Customer Energy Framework (NCEF). Victoria and Queensland are expected to roll out the framework throughout 2015. The NCEF won't be applied in the Northern Territory and Western Australia as they aren't part of the national energy market. Click here for more information.
Under the NCEF, energy providers can't just disconnect you if you don't pay your bill, as long as you take certain steps to settle the debt. Contact your electricity or gas retailer to let them know you're having trouble paying, preferably before the due date, and you won't be disconnected.
Once you've contacted your energy retailer it must:
- offer you a payment plan (unless you've failed to keep two payment plans in the last year); and
- inform you of its hardship policy.
While retailers are required to have processes in place to proactively identify people who are experiencing financial hardship, the onus is on the customer to make contact and discuss difficulties paying.
Payment plans and hardship programs: energy retailers
Payment plans must allow you to pay any debt in instalments. When assessing your situation, retailers should offer a payment plan that is affordable in your current circumstances. The plan should take into account your capacity to pay, the amount you owe as well as your expected energy use over the next 12 months.
You should only agree to a plan you can realistically commit to as your gas or electricity can be disconnected if you don't keep your payment plan. If you can't agree with the retailer on a realistic amount, contact your local energy ombudsman to sort it out. You can't be disconnected while the matter is unresolved with the ombudsman. If you are deemed eligible for a retailer's hardship program, late payment fees must also be waived.
Despite such consumer protections, the rate of electricity disconnections has been increasing in most states since 2009. One of the major issues with payment plans is that agreed payments are often not affordable, says Jo De Silva, a senior policy officer at the South Australia Council of Social Services (SACOSS). A 2013 study conducted by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in NSW found that more than half of the customers offered payment plans thought they were not affordable.
Even if you don't contact your retailer, you can't be disconnected without due notice. After the bill, retailers are required to send two notices and try to contact you:
- First notice: a reminder (can be sent after the due date which should be 13 days after the bill's date of issue)
- Second notice: a disconnection warning (can be sent six days after the reminder notice)
- Contact: six days after the disconnection notice, the retailer is required to try to contact you either in person, by phone or through electronic means before disconnecting you.
This process takes a minimum of 25 days from the date of issue on the bill. If you still haven't taken any steps to settle the debt you can be disconnected.
When your electricity and gas can't be disconnected
- On a business day before 8.00am or after 3.00pm.
- On a Friday at any time or the day before a public holiday.
- On a weekend or a public holiday.
- On the days between 20 December and 31 December.
- If you require life support equipment or someone in your home requires life support.
- The amount owing is less than $300 and you've agreed to pay it.
- You have agreed to a payment plan and you are making the necessary repayments.
- You have an unresolved dispute over your account with the ombudsman.
- Within 25 days of receiving your bill.
When your electricity and gas can be disconnected
- You've agreed to a payment plan and you aren't keeping to it.
- If you've made no attempt to resolve your bill, 25 days after receiving it.
Disconnection as a result of an inability to pay needs to be a last resort for retailers. If you think you've been wrongfully disconnected, contact your retailer, and if that doesn't resolve the issue contact the ombudsman. In Victoria, customers are entitled to a payment of $250 per day if their power has been wrongfully disconnected. Under the NCEF, if you've been wrongfully disconnected, the provider must reconnect you as soon as possible without charge.
Western Australia and Northern Territory energy rights
Your rights may differ slightly in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, as they're not part of the national energy market and sit outside the National Energy Customer Framework.
However, the same principles apply – contact your retailer sooner rather than later to let them know you're having difficulty paying and ask them what help they can provide. For more specific information see the Economic Regulation Authority's website in WA and the Power and Water Corporation's Stay Connected policy in the NT.
Your water rights
Your rights when it comes to water bills regarding financial hardship are similar to your rights around energy, but there are differences across the states and territories. As a general rule, water can't be disconnected for the non-payment of a bill, but the flow can be restricted.
And there's usually a requirement for retailers to allow people experiencing financial hardship to defer their payment. If you're having trouble, contact your retailer as soon as possible to let them know and ask what help is available.
For specific information about payment assistance and retailers' financial hardship programs, contact your water supplier or look at their policy on financial hardship or payment difficulty. For those whose water supplier is the local council, contact the council's debt recovery team to find out what help is available.
New South Wales
Water suppliers in NSW must provide customers in financial hardship the ability to defer their payment, which is set out in theWater Industry Competition Regulation 2008.
Water providers in Victoria must offer customers flexible payment plans affordable in their circumstances (provided they haven't failed to keep up with two plans in the past 12 months) under the Customer Service Code for Urban Water Businesses.
Water retailers in South East Queensland must offer customers in financial hardship the option to pay in affordable instalments (provided they haven't failed to keep up with two plans in the past 12 months) under the Water Sewerage and Services Code for Small Customers in South East Queensland.
Water retailers in South Australia must offer customers who are experiencing payment difficulties flexible payment plans. Your rights are laid out in the Water Retail Code for Major Retailers or for Minor Retailers. Any customer that is disconnected but that is eligible for the retailer's hardship program is entitled to have the reconnection fee waived. Retailers must base their financial hardship policies on the minister's model policy.
Water retailers in Western Australia must offer a payment plan to any customer who identifies themselves to be experiencing payment difficulties, as set out in the Water Services Code of Conduct (Customer Service Standards) 2013.
Northern Territory customers having trouble paying their bill should contact Power and Water Corporation as it may be able to arrange a payment plan. If you're eligible for a payment plan and make the required repayments, you can't be disconnected.
As the only provider of utility services in the Northern Territory, customer rights are laid out in the Power and Water Corporation's customer contract and through its financial hardship policy.
Water providers in Tasmania must offer you a payment plan if you let them know you're having trouble paying. They must also have financial hardship policies under the Water and Sewerage Industry (Customer Service Standards) Regulations 2009.
Water providers must offer a payment plan to customers who let them know they're experiencing trouble paying, under the Utilities (Consumer Protection Code) Determination 2012.
While you're generally responsible for fixing a leak in any of the pipes on your side of the fence, it's worth checking with your retailer about any rebates or reductions in fees in the case where your bill may seem unusually high due to an undetected leak. Many retailers offer reductions in such cases. For example, Sydney Water offers a 50% credit for extra water used in the case of a concealed leak.
Energy and water ombudsmen
ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal
02 6207 1740
Energy & Water Ombudsman NSW
1800 246 545
08 8999 1818
Energy & Water Ombudsman Queensland
1800 662 837
Energy & Water Ombudsman South Australia
1800 665 565
Energy Ombudsman Tasmania
1800 001 170
Ombudsman Tasmania (water)
1800 001 170
Energy & Water Ombudsman Victoria
1800 500 509
Energy & Water Ombudsman Western Australia
1800 754 004