By Loren Days, Research & Policy Advocate, Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre
As essential services, energy and water play a unique role in domestic households and the costs can present challenges to households experiencing financial difficulty. In circumstances where domestic violence is present, these challenges are further complicated when there is a breakdown of the domestic setting and a victim is at a point of crisis.
The Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre (CUAC) released the report Helping Not Hindering: Uncovering Domestic Violence & Utility Debt, which explores the policies and practices of utility providers and the legal and operational framework as it applies to victims of domestic violence with utility debts, specifically where domestic abuse leads to a breakdown of a household and victims are at a point of crisis. Often when such a breakdown occurs, victims of domestic violence also suffer economic abuse.
CUAC’s research shows that utility debt has potential to prolong a crisis situation and hinder a person’s ability to ‘move on’ from domestic violence or economic abuse. Given the effectively mandatory nature of utility bills (both before and after the breakdown of the domestic household), economic abuse in these circumstances can include the imposition of household debts on victims of domestic violence, and in some cases, liability for significant debts that are not properly their own to bear. How a case is managed by a utility provider can make the difference between contributing to the economic stress that influences a person’s decision to return to their abusive partner, or enabling them to re-establish themself independently as a paying utility customer.
The report focuses on women as a group that are particularly vulnerable to domestic violence and economic abuse, although the scenarios outlined in the research could equally apply to men or circumstances of family violence that involve extended family members. It was clear that the current policies and practices of utility providers that assist vulnerable populations do not specifically account for, and are therefore not sufficiently adapted to, women customers who are victims of domestic violence. For such women, navigating utility provider’s current policies in order to address utility debts can be challenging if not impossible. Conversely, utility providers, in the absence of considered policies, are equally unprepared in their response to women, as they often do not fit within their ‘risk matrix’, leaving the utility providers debts that are hard to recover.
CUAC examined scenarios where utility bills are in a woman’s name only, their abusive partner’s name only, or jointly with an abusive partner, and where the abusive partner has abandoned the household or the woman has fled to a temporary residence.
The major findings of the report revealed three key circumstances that were problematic, including:
- A woman who is not originally listed on an account with her energy retailer being required to assume the previous debts of her abusive partner (e.g. transfer of debt);
- A woman being a joint account holder with her abusive partner facing difficulty terminating the account (or effectively remove either name from the account) and being jointly and severally liable for previous debts; and
- A woman who is liable for utility debts (in whole or in part) and is unable to pay.
Regulation plays a critical role in protecting economically vulnerable consumers, and holding utility providers accountable as providers of essential services. CUAC recommends that regulators conduct a review of the relevant laws and codes and consider reforms to address the breakdown of joint account holders and termination.
With respect to the transfer of debt issue, CUAC recommends utility providers immediately modify practices to prevent the transfer of utility debts to victims of domestic violence that are originally in their abusive partner’s name. Accordingly, CUAC asks that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission investigate cases where the transfer of debt has occurred as an unlawful practice.
CUAC has called on the government and community sector to work in partnership to develop resources that outline the rights and liabilities for utility bills for community agencies that assist victims of domestic violence, and ultimately enable workers to negotiate with utility providers more effectively. CUAC also emphasises the importance of adopting an approach that empowers women to take control of their utility bills.
Exploring utility provider’s policies and practices in the context of domestic violence revealed clear inadequacies with the accessibility of hardship programs more broadly. Accordingly, CUAC recommends regulators and the Energy & Water Ombudsman (Victoria) develop best practice hardship guidelines or principles that will assist vulnerable consumers who are experiencing payment difficulty.
Women should not be required to disclose the violence in order to access a hardship department of a utility provider because it effectively requires them to re-tell their story. However, in situations where women or the workers assisting them identify domestic and family violence as a contributing factor to payment difficultly, CUAC recommends that utility providers put special measures in place to better assist them (e.g. heightened security measures or workshopping solutions that are sensitive to the complicated nature of these circumstances). CUAC also believes additional training for the call centre staff of utility providers is essential to improve how they respond to victims of domestic violence.
Helping Not Hindering was written with the aim to guide policy and prompt dialogue within the utility industry, regulators, government, agencies in the community sector and ombudsman schemes in Victoria and provide valuable information to agencies in the community sector that assist victims of domestic violence. CUAC is advocating the Victorian Government and regulators to implement recommendations outlined in the report.
For further inquiries or to download copies of Helping Not Hindering: Uncovering Domestic Violence & Utility Debt, please contact Loren Days at email@example.com.