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Water, energy hardship cases double

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Tough economic times have seen more South Australians reach out for help to pay their water and energy bills.

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More than double the number of South Australians filed hardship complaints with the water and energy ombudsman in 2014-15 than they did during the previous year.

The number of hardship cases presented to the ombudsman rose to 617, up from 264 in 2013-14.

Water and energy consumers can file a hardship case with the ombudsman if they believe themselves unable to pay a bill, and they are unsatisfied with the response of their provider.

Ombudsman Sandy Canale told InDaily difficult economic conditions in the state were contributing to the spike in hardship cases.

“There have been customers that have found themselves in changed circumstances, [including that] they’ve suddenly found themselves without a job, so those things don’t necessarily help when you’ve got an energy bill that you’ve got to pay,” he said.

“We’re starting to see some of those things coming out in the numbers.”

Customers who filed hardship cases, said Canale, “are either having difficulty in negotiating a suitable payment arrangement, or a payment arrangement that’s being proposed … means that they may not be able to pay for current ongoing consumption”.

“The vast majority are resolved direct with the providers.

“[However] if that doesn’t resolve the issue, or the customer is dissatisfied with the response, then they can refer the matter to us.”

Canale said his organisation was able to resolve most hardship cases through mediation between the customer and the company involved.

“Most customers can get on to payment arrangements which avoid going to water retriction or going to gas or electricity disconnection,” he said.

“We have very few people that are disconnected from supply. We prefer everyone to stay on supply rather than have anyone go off supply, so we’re fairly keen to make sure that arrangements can be negotiated.

“We’ve got some really positive signs here, too.

“We’re actually starting so see complaints in decline; [and] we’re starting to see more co-operation between the companies and the customer.

“We’ve had a 33 per cent decline in the number of overall complaints. That comes off the back of a 14 per cent decline the previous financial year.

“It could mean that the overall number of complaints that the companies are receiving has declined, [or that] the companies are actually dealing with more of the issues themselves, before [the customer] even needs to come to us.

“We’ve had a significant decline in the number of cases that present to us in terms of sales and marketing, and that was a fairly big issue a couple of years ago.”

Sales and marketing complaints – where the customer believes they have been misled by a company or asked to sign a contract they believe to be inconsistent with the outcome of negotiations – fell by almost half between 2013-14 and 2014-15, and billing complaints to the ombudsman fell by 27 per cent.

“The area that we’ve all got to continually work on is to find solutions so that we don’t ever have anyone disconnected purely because they have a willingness to pay, but don’t have the capacity to do so,” Canale said.

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