Need to know
- Household utility costs are expected to rise in the immediate future, with many consumers already struggling to pay
- If you are or expect to be in financial hardship, you can get help from your retailer, the government and financial counsellors
- As a utility consumer, you have guaranteed rights and won't be disconnected without notice if you can't pay your bills
With energy prices going through their latest upswing, households are seeing power costs mount up alongside water bills to eat up more of their budget.
At times such as these, with electricity company chiefs warning of bills rising by 35% next year and CHOICE's own research showing power costs re-emerging as a front-of-mind concern for households, it pays to know your rights.
If you would like to pay your bill, but can't find the money within the time your provider's given you, you meet the definition of someone in financial hardship – and you're not alone.
Fortunately, there's an extensive range of protections and support schemes available and enforced no matter where you live. But with these differing by state and territory, navigating the web of consumer protections can be difficult.
Samantha de Wit is an experienced financial counsellor with the Salvation Army and says the counsellors she now trains and supervises are always working with people struggling to pay utility bills.
"Calls regarding utilities are always steady. There are calls coming in every day about electricity, gas [and] water," she says.
De Wit expects her counsellors to start receiving more calls if the price rise predictions of power bosses come to fruition and says now is a good time for people to shop around or re-negotiate with their provider.
There is an extensive range of protections and support schemes available and enforced no matter where you live
But if you're in hardship now, you're already guaranteed certain rights to assistance and can't just be suddenly disconnected from electricity, gas or water for not paying your bill on time.
If you find you are unable to pay your water, electricity or gas bill by the due date, here are the main steps to take to stay connected to these essential services:
- Contact your retailer before your bill is due to let them know you will have difficulty paying.
- Your retailer is legally required to assist you and offer you a payment plan or hardship policy to help get your debts under control.
- Only agree to a payment plan that is realistic in your circumstances, as your retailer may disconnect you if you don't follow it.
- Speak to a financial counsellor. You can do this through the National Debt Helpline by calling 1800 007 007 or by using its online live chat function.
- See if you're eligible for any government rebates, vouchers or other concessions to help cover the cost of your utilities. A financial counsellor can also assist you in finding and applying for these.
- Get advice on how to reduce your energy and water use. Most states and territories have schemes that help cover the cost of energy-efficient home and appliance upgrades.
- If you can't agree on an affordable payment plan with your provider or if you think you've been wrongfully disconnected, contact your local ombudsman (see below).
If you can't pay your bill on time, you're not alone and help is available.
The level of help you may be eligible for varies for energy and water and depends on your state or territory. (See our guides below.)
But, for anyone struggling to pay for one or both of these services, the following options are available in both cases:
Payment plans and financial hardship programs
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 covering your bill.
You may also be considered eligible for a retailer's hardship program.
As long as you agree to and are following a repayment plan or other hardship provisions, your retailer can not disconnect or restrict your utilities
Being on the hardship program may offer other benefits on top of a payment plan, such as the waiving of late payment fees 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.
As long as you agree to and are following a repayment plan or other hardship provisions, your retailer can not disconnect or restrict your utilities.
Government support payments
There are various state, territory and federal programs providing rebates and other support payments to those on low or fixed incomes who are struggling with their utility bills.
If you're eligible for one or more of these, the government can cover some of the cost of your utilities.
The federal government's Moneysmart website provides a list of benefits for energy and water in each state and territory and CHOICE's own rundown of what's available also includes information on how the government can help you get solar at home.
Free financial counsellors are another resource at your disposal if you're facing bills you can't afford.
Salvation Army counsellor Samantha de Wit explains counsellors can help you negotiate a burdensome utility bill, starting by building a comprehensive picture of what bills you can't afford and why.
"[They then] provide the client with financial literacy information, suitable options and, if needed, advocate on their behalf with the utility company in question."
This advocacy can involve joining the client on a call to the retailer to negotiate a payment plan or checking that the account holder is receiving the appropriate concessions and discounts.
"Sometimes speaking to these big utility companies is quite daunting," de Wit says.
"So, a financial counsellor can check the discounts and make sure that [you're] receiving the best possible option."
Anyone can get in touch with a financial counsellor by contacting the National Debt Helpline.
In New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT, consumers' energy rights are laid out in the National Energy Customer Framework (NECF) which is enforced by the Australian Energy Regulator (AER).
The NECF applies in a limited capacity in Victoria and the Northern Territory, but is not applicable at all in Western Australia.
In the Northern Territory and Western Australian, state and territory governments regulate the energy market directly.
In Victoria, the Essential Services Commission regulates the energy retail market, but has harmonised its retail code with the NECF.
The onus is still largely on the customer to initiate proceedings
In the NECF states and Victoria, energy retailers must offer hardship policies and payment plans and can't just disconnect you for not paying your bill if you have taken certain steps to settle the debt.
This can be as simple as contacting the provider to tell them you're having trouble paying.
If you take this first step early, preferably before the bill's due date, you won't be suddenly disconnected.
While regulators are increasingly putting pressure on retailers to proactively identify people who are experiencing financial hardship early, the onus is still largely on the customer to initiate proceedings.
Payment plans and hardship policies
A retailer's payment plan must be affordable and take into account what you already owe, and may also factor in how much energy you're expected to consume over the next 12 months.
A plan must also allow you to pay any debt in instalments or in advance.
You should only agree to a plan you can realistically commit to, as your gas or electricity can be disconnected if you fail to meet your obligations.
If you can't agree with the retailer on a realistic and affordable plan, contact your local energy ombudsman for assistance
(see the list of contacts towards the end of this article) – 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 and you may get extra assistance from your retailer in the form of energy efficiency audits and financial counselling.
Late payment fees must also be waived and you may get extra assistance in the form of energy efficiency audits and financial counselling
Despite all these consumer protections, the rate of electricity disconnections has been increasing in most states this year, after regulators intervened to block them during Covid lockdowns.
One reason for this could be the historical trend of consumers agreeing to payment plans they can't actually afford.
In 2018, NSW's Public Interest Advocacy Centre surveyed energy customers who had been disconnected for not paying their bill and found 50% believed a more realistic plan would have prevented the experience.
All the more reason to consider any payment plan and your capacity to pay it carefully before agreeing and, if need be, get advice from a financial counsellor.
"Utility providers are often more than willing to work with financial counsellors and clients to set up affordable payment arrangements," Samantha de Wit says.
"But …a utility company can only provide support based on the information that is given to them, so it's important to be open and honest."
Can my energy provider cut me off?
Even if you don't contact your retailer to let them know you're in trouble, you can't be disconnected without due notice.
After a bill goes unpaid, retailers are required to send two notices and to attempt to contact you directly:
- First notice: a reminder, sent after the due date of the bill has passed (you will also get a reminder notice if you have agreed to a payment plan and have not made your payments as agreed).
- Second notice: a disconnection warning (sent if you don't pay within the given time period stated on the reminder notice).
- Contact: as a final step before disconnection, your retailer is required to try and contact you either in person, by phone or through electronic means if you still haven't paid or contacted them to discuss payment of your debt.
After this, 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 8am or after 3pm (2pm in Victoria).
- On Friday to Sunday.
- On the day before a public holiday.
- On a public holiday.
- On the days between 20 December and 31 December (inclusive).
- If you owe less than $300 and have made an agreement with the retailer to repay that amount.
- In extreme weather circumstances.
When your electricity and gas can be disconnected:
- When you've agreed to a payment plan and you aren't keeping to it.
- When you've been offered two payment plans in the previous 12 months and have accepted neither.
- Outside of failure to pay a bill, your provider may also cut off energy to your home if you deny them access to your meter or if you are using or interfering with energy illegally.
What to do if you think you've been unfairly disconnected
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 the ACT, the ombudsman can order companies to reconnect you, while in Victoria, customers are entitled to a payment of $500 for each day they had no power if it's found they were incorrectly disconnected.
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 largely 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.
Energy providers must not disconnect residential customers if they're adhering to a payment plan.
Get your state or territory ombudsman involved if you're having trouble coming to an agreement with your retailer.
Your water can't be disconnected, but the flow can be restricted.
Your rights concerning water bills and financial hardship are similar to those with energy, but, again, there are differences across the states and territories.
Due to its importance to public health, water to a residence can't be disconnected for the non-payment of a bill, but the flow can be restricted.
Across the states and territories, providers are required to offer hardship policies and payment plans.
If you're having trouble, contact your retailer as soon as possible to let them know your situation and ask what help is available.
For specific information about payment assistance and retailer financial hardship programs, contact your water provider (this may be your council) or search for their policy on financial hardship or payment difficulty.
New South Wales
Water suppliers in NSW must provide customers in financial hardship the ability to defer their payment, as set out in the Water Industry Competition (General) Regulation 2021.
Water providers must offer customers flexible and affordable payment options (provided they haven't failed to keep up with two payment plans in the past 12 months) under the Urban and rural water business customer service codes.
Providers can restrict the flow of water to a customer as long as they owe at least $200, have received multiple notices and have no complaints pending with the ombudsman and no application pending for state government rebates.
Water retailers in South East Queensland must offer customers in financial hardship the option to pay in affordable instalments under the South East Queensland Customer Water and Wastewater Code.
Providers can only restrict the flow of a customer's water supply if they fail to comply with a payment plan two or more times within a year.
Outside of the south east, water services are largely provided and priced by local councils, many of whom offer payment plans for water bills and other rates.
Water retailers in Western Australia must offer a payment plan to any customer experiencing payment difficulties, as set out in the Water Services Code of Conduct (Customer Service Standards) 2018.
Customers on a payment plan and those owing less than $200 are exempt from having their water supply restricted.
Water retailers in South Australia must offer customers who are experiencing payment difficulties a hardship policy and payment plan and can't restrict water supply to customers on a hardship policy.
Retailers must base their financial hardship policies on the minister's model policy.
Water providers in Tasmania must offer their customers a hardship policy and a payment plan if the customer lets them know they're having trouble paying.
These provisions are set down in the Tasmanian Water and Sewerage Industry Customer Service Code, along with the ruling that customers in hardship can't have their service restricted if they are following a payment plan.
Water providers must offer hardship policies and payment plans, under the Utilities (Consumer Protection Code) Determination 2020.
Customers can also only have their water connection restricted if they haven't stuck to a payment plan.
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 main provider of water services in the Northern Territory, customer rights are laid out in the Power and Water Corporation's customer contract.
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.
02 6207 1740
1800 246 545
1800 806 380
1800 662 837
1800 665 565
1800 001 170
Ombudsman Tasmania (water)
1800 001 170
1800 500 509
1800 754 004
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.