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Families taken to court over utility bills

FAMILIES struggling to pay bills for electricity, gas, oil and waste collection are still being pursued through the courts by utility firms.

But the amount awarded to the companies was less than half the sum involved the previous year.

The firms were awarded judgments of €442,342 in 236 court actions this year -- an average of €1,834 against each householder, new figures show.

The value of 344 court actions taken in 2010 by utilities was €948,471, putting the average amount awarded at €2,757.

"As unemployment rises, salaries drop and social welfare expenditure tightens, people are missing their payments, so utility companies are forced to pursue consumers through the courts," said Christine Cullen, managing director of business intelligence analyst, Vision-net.

"It's clear that utility companies should communicate better with their customers, avoid estimating usage and then landing consumers with large bills and work with them on payment plans.

"Utility companies should more regularly examine customers' payment histories and work towards agreed solutions, rather than allowing bills to mount up and end in court proceedings."

The Commission for Energy Regulation plans to introduce a "debt flagging" facility to alert companies when potential new customers who are in arrears with rival suppliers, try to set up new accounts.

"We should acknowledge, however, that the number of court actions taken by utilities companies has declined since 2008 when they peaked at 834, so there is some evidence of forbearance in dealing with customers' arrears," Ms Cullen said.

Since 2008, utilities have taken 1,918 court actions against householders, amounting to more than €3.2m, with an average payout of €1,714. Almost twice as many court actions were taken by utilities companies against householders in 2009 than were taken last year.

In 2009, €794,100 was paid out through the courts in 504 actions, making an average payment of €1,576.

Separately, Vision-net's figures show that the Revenue Commissions have collected €70m through the courts against consumers this year in 1,300 actions for unpaid tax.