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Claims for harassment and damages
In an important case which indicates that the courts will not tolerate heavy-handed and intimidating actions by energy suppliers, the Court of Appeal ruled that legal threats issued by British Gas could constitute harassment and could be subject to both civil proceedings and a crime under the Prevention of Harassment Act 1997.1Ferguson v British Gas [2009] EWCA Civ 46
Over a period of months, British Gas sent bills and threatening letters to the claimant who was a former British Gas customer who had switched to npower. The letters demanded money she did not owe. The threats included to disconnect her gas supply, to start legal proceedings and to report her to credit reference agencies. Despite repeatedly contacting British Gas the threats continued, including after she complained to Energywatch and twice to the chairman of British Gas. As a result she wasted many hours, and, more importantly, was brought to a state of considerable anxiety. She instructed a solicitor but still no response was received. As a consequence she began legal proceedings claiming £5,000 for distress and anxiety and £5,000 for financial loss due to time lost and expenses in dealing with British Gas and that the course of conduct amounted to unlawful harassment contrary to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
Excuses raised by British Gas that it could not be blamed for letters issued by a computer or that it was a company, and should be treated as different to an individual who issued threatening letters, were rejected by the court.
The court ruled that a company such as British Gas could be held responsible for mistakes made by its computerised debt recovery system and the personnel responsible for programming and operating it. The company could be held liable in the same way that a human being could be.
The court also indicated that harassment could be a crime as well as a tort or civil wrong and that in ‘any well-documented case, what is sufficient for the one purpose is likely to be sufficient for the other’. This ruling opens the way for energy companies to be prosecuted under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. It was further observed that the ‘primary responsibility should rest upon local public authorities which possess the means and the statutory powers to bring alleged harassers, however impersonal and powerful, before the local justices.’ This means that trading standards departments could prosecute where wrongful debt collection turns into harassment. The question will be whether the course of conduct goes beyond annoyance and irritation and has become ‘oppressive and unacceptable’ or ‘fairly severe’ so that the law should intervene.2Ferguson v British Gas [2009] EWCA Civ 46 per Nicholls LJ and Jacobs LJ; Shakil-Ur-Rahman v ARY Netword Ltd and Ghafoor [2016] EWHC 31010
A wrongful attempt at debt enforcement by an energy supplier can also result in damages for slander or libel if statements are made by a supplier that are untrue and may damage your reputation.3Say v British Gas Services Ltd [2011] All ER (D) 216
1     Ferguson v British Gas [2009] EWCA Civ 46 »
2     Ferguson v British Gas [2009] EWCA Civ 46 per Nicholls LJ and Jacobs LJ; Shakil-Ur-Rahman v ARY Netword Ltd and Ghafoor [2016] EWHC 31010 »
3     Say v British Gas Services Ltd [2011] All ER (D) 216 »