Magistrates in England and Wales told to halt prepayment meter warrants
Magistrates in England and Wales have been told to stop approving warrants that allow energy companies to forcibly fit prepayment meters, following an intervention from a senior judge on Monday.
Lord Justice Andrew Edis, senior presiding judge of England and Wales, issued guidance to magistrates courts to halt listing applications for permits of entry until further notice, after energy markets regulator Ofgem opened an investigation into the practice.
Ofgem last week ordered British Gas to suspend forcible installations after it emerged that debt collection agents acting on behalf of Britain’s biggest suppliers had been breaking into the homes of vulnerable people to fit prepayment devices.
Grant Shapps, UK business secretary, said he had been “appalled” by the treatment of energy customers.
The regulator had asked suppliers to voluntarily stop such activities while it carries out two separate investigations into British Gas and the wider prepayment meter market.
Ofgem rules dictate that suppliers cannot fit pre-pay meters under a court warrant in the homes of people either considered to be in “very vulnerable situations”, or who would find the experience “very traumatic”.
Magistrates courts had previously been routinely issuing installation warrants in bulk. Most applications for such permits are not contested by the householder who must be notified that a warrant has been sought.
Edis said in a letter to magistrates on Monday that, in light of the Ofgem investigation, “applications for warrants of entry for the purpose of installing a prepayment meter should, with immediate effect, cease to be listed”.
He added that “no further such applications are to be determined until further notice”.
Edis noted that the courts must act proportionately and with regard to the human rights of people affected, particularly those who are vulnerable.
He said that the decision to recommence listing such warrants will depend on the progress of Ofgem’s investigation and any legislative review. Edis added that the direction did not effect other cases, such as applications for warrants in commercial cases.
The Ministry of Justice is to urgently consult with energy companies on the next steps.
The Magistrates Association, an independent association that represents magistrates in England and Wales, said it welcomed the new guidance.
“As well as highlighting that magistrates have, thus far, been following the correct procedures with regards to such applications, it reiterates that energy companies must follow due process regarding vulnerability assessments,” it said.
British Gas owner Centrica has apologised for the “deeply disturbing” behaviour of agents installing prepayment meters in the homes of vulnerable customers on its behalf, which was uncovered by a Times investigation.
However, fuel poverty campaigners said the allegations against British Gas were likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”.
The End Fuel Poverty Coalition, a group of charities, trade unions and local authorities, had called for a review into the role of magistrates in granting permits to forcibly fit the devices.
The use of prepayment meters has raised concerns as they require customers to top up in advance, which tends to be more expensive than paying for electricity and gas via direct debit.
Fuel poverty campaigners warned that they also lead to vulnerable households “self disconnecting” if they cannot afford to pay.
Citizens Advice, a charity, said that in 2022 more than 27,500 people could not afford to top up their prepayment meter, a higher figure than for the entirety of the previous 10 years combined.