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Hi everyone,

 

I have a dispute with First Utility going back some years, and they are harassing me for the disputed debt. I don't know what to do with it so seeking some input please!

 

First, a little history on the dispute. I had a dual fuel tariff with First Utility, with a monthly direct debit going out. Due to an error on their systems, I was not being charged for gas for about 11 months. They issued a single large gas bill which they said they would collect by direct debit - to which I emailed them asking them not to do it. The guidance in place by Ofgem at the time said that the utility company needed to spread the bill over the same period of time the error built up (e.g. 11 months). First Utility didn't reply to my email before the Direct Debit was due to be charged, so I cancelled the DD mandate and told them I had done so. This is how the whole thing started.

 

There have been a few other strings to this matter... I can't remember all of them but a quick summary of some:

1. First Utility changed the meter, and have admitted that the meter was giving wrong information - they haven't clarified this at all.

 

2. The end reading from the previous supplier (British Gas) overlaps with the start reading from First Utility. I've paid British Gas in full, so I asked First Utility whether I've overpaid British Gas, or else First Utility should credit me some units.

 

3. First Utility wrote to me with a "your pricing is changing" letter. I said I wanted to make sure I was on the best possible deal; and they replied to say my tariff would not be changed whilst there was a dispute. I was later told the pricing was changed, but the *tariff* was not. I explained to them that I thought they'd been misleading here.

 

4. The biggest dispute by value is the billing rates since the dispute started. They've locked the gas account, so it can't be moved to another supplier, and arbitrarily changed my rates to much higher than are available on Uswitch etc. The electricity was moved to another provider; I don't know why they didn't lock the electricity but did lock the gas. As I haven't been buying both electricity/gas from the same company, I haven't benefited from any dual fuel discounts either.

 

I have explained all the above countless times. First Utility haven't given a substantive response to the points, and have continued issuing gas bills (at expensive rate) compounding the problem. I have repeatedly asked them to let me change providers, and told them the matter is in dispute.

 

The dispute has been characterised by First Utility trying to get someone to resolve it, then I assume they realise the complexity of it and they move on to something else. Looking at their public accounts, First Utility have increased in size from £57m in 2010 to £561m in 2014... so I suspect that all this growth has caused massive issues for them internally with staff changes, system changes, and I seem to be a victim of this.

 

More recently their solicitors (ERT Law, a.k.a. Eaton Ryan & Taylor) corresponded with me and I was hopeful to get it resolved, but after 12 months of correspondence ERT Law simply stopped. (They would take a long time to response to me.) It seems once they understood the dispute they decided it was too complex.

 

My problem with First Utility is that every 6 months or so, they put my account into a debt collection procedure and we get phone calls, visits from debt collectors, etc. I have had at least 5 different debt collectors visit my wife (I'm normally at work). It is really getting quite upsetting, and the police have already been called once and attended my home after a particularly aggressive debt collector.

 

More recently a debt collector has applied for a hearing at the Magistrates' Court to get a warrant of entry, which I will be attending to defend. The debt collector is aware of the dispute but said it was too complicated for them to look into.

 

My question is can I use the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to obtain an injunction against First Utility? What I would like to do is for them to be restricted from what they can do to pursue the matter. In my mind it is quite simple - we should exchange correspondence to try and resolve it, and if we cannot reach an agreement they have the option of suing me in the county court. What I don't want to happen is for them to harass me with phone calls, pass details on to debt collectors, have people visit my house, etc.

 

I am aware of the Roberts v Bank of Scotland PLC [2013] case, which is slightly different in that the debt wasn't in dispute, and it was a damages claim rather than an injunction.

 

I should also set my stall out to say that this has reached such a bad state of affairs that I am willing to take a risk of failed legal action and the £tens of thousands that could potentially cost me.

 

Your input greatly appreciated!

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Sorry... good point, I haven't paid the amount they claim is outstanding because it is wrong and in dispute. The amount is quite large - in the £15k-20k range. I should also point out I have had correspondence with Malcolm Henchley (Head of Legal at First Utility) who has said First Utility will continue with their "enforcement action". (My query was whether they would continue to chase with debt collectors etc., whilst it was in dispute.)

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So what do you want them to do ?

 

It appears you do actually owe them an amount ?, if so, its hardly harrasement if they simply ask you to pay them.

 

There is a case of harresment against British Gas here > http://www.out-law.com/page-9826 but in that case the person didnt owe anything.

 

Is the Debt Collector Hydron ?. I too had an issue with FU, but found Hydron and the guy who came round most helpful and I was able to resolve my issue (I had been overpaying Electricity and was actually in credit and didnt owe anything).

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So what do you want them to do ?

 

It appears you do actually owe them an amount ?, if so, its hardly harrasement if they simply ask you to pay them.

 

There is a case of harresment against British Gas here but in that case the person didnt owe anything.

 

The harassment is that they know it is in dispute, and they are pursuing a course of action which is bullying me into submission rather than acknowledge their mistakes and correct them. They seem unable/unwilling to correct their mistakes, which means just another debt collector is sent around causing upset.

 

Is the Debt Collector Hydron ?. I too had an issue with FU, but found Hydron and the guy who came round most helpful and I was able to resolve my issue (I had been overpaying Electricity and was actually in credit and didnt owe anything).

 

Yes - it is Hydron currently. (They've used quite a few debt collectors over the years though.) I have actually found Hydron quite bad, I'd be happy to detail experiences in this thread but don't want to sidetrack it if that's not the correct course of action.

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Ok..Not experience I had, Hydron sent guy round and he was very helpful emailed me a few times and I copied him in on correspondence from FU, I ended up about £450 overpaid which bought my debt down to about £11 which was handy (I was spurred onto checking everything after feature on Watchdog).

 

Not sure we can add much more, suing for harrassment is route open to you, I note in BG case, defendant had costs of £10K and BG costs of £20k, lucky she won so BG had to pay them all.

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Not sure we can add much more, suing for harrassment is route open to you, I note in BG case, defendant had costs of £10K and BG costs of £20k, lucky she won so BG had to pay them all.

 

I think key thing here is I am not seeking damages, I am just trying to limit what First Utility can do to what is hopefully a reasonable set of actions - e.g. correspondence or suing in the county court. I don't mind them doing either of those, but don't want them sending Hydron debt collectors or any others around. I am separately taking action against Hydron for damages, I have reproduced most of the particulars of claim below.

 

IN THE NORTHAMPTON COUNTY COURT

 

 

 

Claim No. XXXXX

 

 

Between:

 

 

(1) XXXXX

Claimant

 

-and-

 

 

(2) HYDRON DEBT AND METERING LTD

Defendant

 

 

 

 

PARTICULARS OF CLAIM

 

 

 

1. The Defendant is a debt collection agency.

 

2. The Claimant has an account (“the Account”) with the Defendant's client, First Utility Ltd (“FU”).

 

3. FU alleges a debt on the Account, which the Claimant disputes.

 

Dispute between FU and the Claimant

 

4. The Claimant’s dispute with FU is long and complex, but in essence the dispute started because FU did not bill the Claimant for gas for approximately 12 months from 13th May 2010 to April 2011.

 

5. FU then proposed to bill the arrears in one lump sum giving 14 days’ notice, to which the Claimant objected. FU have a requirement to spread any arrears over the same length of time the arrears built up under the OFGEM guidance in place.

 

6. The dispute is characterised by the Claimant writing to FU in an attempt to resolve the matter, FU corresponding initially and then FU stopping correspondence for long periods of time.

 

7. After a break for sometimes months at a time, a different FU member of staff or debt collection agency would pick the matter up, and not be familiar with the aspects of the dispute.

 

8. The Claimant is not detailing all the matters of the dispute in these proceedings. What is being shown is there is a significant and legitimate dispute.

 

9. The Claimant believes the largest aspect of the dispute by financial value is the difference between the energy rates FU is currently billing the Claimant at, and the best available rates on the market.

 

10. FU stated on 17th November 2011 that the Claimant’s tariff would not be changed until the complaint is resolved.

 

11. FU stated on 24th September 2012 that the rates the Claimant was being charged had been increased.

 

12. The Claimant has tried to change gas supplier but FU has locked the Claimant’s account so it is not possible.

 

13. The Claimant’s position is that due to FU’s breach of its contract by failing to bill properly, and further FU’s action to lock the account, the Claimant has been unable to take advantage of the best available gas rates, and therefore has suffered a loss which the Claimant is entitled to recover from FU.

 

14. The Claimant also alleges that due to FU’s breach, it has been unable to take advantage of “Dual Fuel” discounts and so has suffered a loss on its electricity rates.

 

15. FU’s solicitors ERT Law Limited (“ERT”) started correspondence with the Claimant on 16th April 2014 in relation to the dispute.

 

16. The Claimant and ERT exchanged correspondence until 17th April 2015, with ERT typically taking 4 weeks to reply, and the Claimant typically taking 2 weeks.

 

17. The most recent correspondence from the Claimant to ERT was on 17th April 2015, to which ERT have not replied.

 

18. The Claimant’s position is that the dispute is unresolved with FU and is ongoing.

 

19. The Claimant wrote to FU on 3rd November 2011 asking FU not to visit his home without resolving the dispute first.

 

The Defendant’s Conduct

 

20. From early October 2015 and during the Defendant's business of attempting to collect funds which FU claimed was owed by the Claimant, the Defendant pursued a course of action that was unreasonable in the circumstances.

 

21. The Defendant wrote to the Claimant around 7th October 2015 with a standard form debt collection letter on behalf of FU.

 

22. The Claimant replied by email to the Defendant on 9th October 2015, stating that the debt was in dispute and asking the Defendant to refer to correspondence with FU.

 

23. The Defendant did not reply to the Claimant’s email, but sent a debt collector to the Claimant’s home address on 26th October 2015.

 

24. The Defendant’s debt collector spoke to the Claimant by telephone (on the Claimant’s wife’s phone), and was again told the debt was in dispute and to refer to FU.

 

25. The Defendant’s debt collector admitted the Defendant had copies extensive correspondence between FU and the Claimant, but was unable to look into it in his time slot for this visit.

 

26. The Defendant wrote to the Claimant on 4th November 2015, stating, amongst other things, it was in the process of applying for a warrant of entry to the Claimant’s home address.

 

27. The Claimant spoke to a member of staff at the Defendant on 6th November 2015, where the Claimant was told the Defendant had set a hearing at Reading Magistrates’ Court for 2nd December 9:30am for a warrant of entry, and an appointment on the same day at 11:00am to fit a prepayment meter or disconnect the gas supply. The Claimant told the Defendant the matter was in dispute. The Defendant admitted it had copies of extensive correspondence between the Claimant and FU.

 

28. The Defendant's course of action is contrary to the Key Requirements 1(v) and 1(aa) of the Credit Service Association Code of Practice, as well as 3(i), 3(j), 3(k) and 3(l) of the same Code of Practice.

 

29. The Claimant received a further letter from the Defendant on 11th November, advising of the 2nd December 9:30am hearing and making further threats on forced entry.

 

30. The Claimant alleges that the Defendant’s actions of failing to investigate the matter when it was aware there was a dispute, but instead aggressively pursuing the debt as if there was no dispute, amounts to harassment under the Section 1 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

 

31. As a result of this harassment the Claimant has suffered damage, distress and anxiety.

 

 

And the Claimant claims

 

32. The sum of £1,000.00

 

33. Costs.

 

Statement of Truth

 

I believe that the facts stated in these Particulars of Claim are true.

 

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to be honest I am no fan of First Utility or Hydron. But you have got this all wrong. Taking action against Hydron you have picked the wrong defendant. This action should of been directed solely at First Utility as the are the entity who instruct Hydron. The only thing that will happen for sure is you have just wasted your court fee.

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to be honest I am no fan of First Utility or Hydron. But you have got this all wrong. Taking action against Hydron you have picked the wrong defendant. This action should of been directed solely at First Utility as the are the entity who instruct Hydron. The only thing that will happen for sure is you have just wasted your court fee.

 

Welcome to the board rockape999 :)

 

I am not sure that's correct - Hydron are still legally responsible for their actions, there is not statutory defence to harassment of "I was harassing on someone else's behalf". The thinking runs that Hydron have extensive correspondence between me and First Utility, ignored the rules governing their profession, and decided to threaten me and visit my home rather than go through the correspondence.

 

I think it's 99% certain that Hydron will have a performance fee from First Utility based on money recovered, so there is a profit motive for Hydron to harass me if they think they're more likely to recover the money and they can get away with it.

 

I don't see in the circumstances why it's not appropriate to claim against Hydron... I do agree with you that it is also appropriate to claim against First Utility though.

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I am struggling to reconcile your point in post #3 that you owe £15-20k with what you say in #6 that the disputed amount relates to 11 months' of gas usage of about £1.8k. Forgive me if I have missed something, but could you explain?

 

I'm no lawyer, but three observations from me:

 

a) I don't think that the behaviours you describe really meets the bar for what might constitute harassment, given you clearly owe FU money;

b) if you are suing for damages, your £1000 seems quite arbitrary. How have you reached that figure? You talk earlier about being put against your will onto an uncompetitive tariff. But you don't seem in your claim to try to plead this, I guess because you are not suing FU. You need to be smarter, if you really think you have a case, at quantifying your loss - and I agree with others that your case is actually against FU not their collectors;

c) when some of these issues are going before a court in the next couple of weeks, wouldn't it have been better to wait for that outcome before beginning a claim against Hydron?

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I am struggling to reconcile your point in post #3 that you owe £15-20k with what you say in #6 that the disputed amount relates to 11 months' of gas usage of about £1.8k. Forgive me if I have missed something, but could you explain?

 

Yes... the matter has been going on for something like 5 years. So the £15-20k is 5 years worth of gas (and some electricity, although I managed to transfer that to another provider) notwithstanding the fact that the £15-20k is charged at significantly higher than market rates and no meter readings have been taken for years.

 

a) I don't think that the behaviours you describe really meets the bar for what might constitute harassment, given you clearly owe FU money;

I think there is a useful precedent which is Roberts vs Bank Of Scotland. That case is slightly different, in that there was no dispute about the debt owed by Roberts to BoS. The judge found that although BoS had a legitimate right to pursue the debt, they were harassing Roberts because of the action I was taking. My situation is different in that there is a clear dispute.

 

b) if you are suing for damages, your £1000 seems quite arbitrary. How have you reached that figure? You talk earlier about being put against your will onto an uncompetitive tariff. But you don't seem in your claim to try to plead this, I guess because you are not suing FU. You need to be smarter, if you really think you have a case, at quantifying your loss - and I agree with others that your case is actually against FU not their collectors;

I don't think there is any guidance on how to quantify damages for harassment - the Roberts v. Bank of Scotland was a claim for £10,000 in damages, so I used that as a starting point, and then rounded down to be safe. Although difficult to quantify, I thought the upset, lost sleep, etc., Hydron had caused was about 20% of what Roberts had suffered in their case.

 

c) when some of these issues are going before a court in the next couple of weeks, wouldn't it have been better to wait for that outcome before beginning a claim against Hydron?

These issues aren't going before a court really - there is a Magistrates' Court hearing on 2nd Dec, where Hydron have said they'll be applying for a warrant of entry. I am not sure if they are still going to do this, but unless they make it absolutely clear they are not then I will be attending court on 2nd Dec. What I intend to show the magistrates if it goes that far is that there is a long and ongoing dispute with First Utility, and the appropriate forum to resolve it is the County Court.

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Hydron receive instruction from First Utility and they would of certified that this account was good to collect on- that is premise for the action of debt recovery, there the definition of harassment is as I understand is to harass someone with out reason. All Hydron will have to say is that they had certified debt that was fit to collect and the district judge will find for them- it a really simple judgement to set down Save your fee and go after First Utility where you have more chance of a positive outcome. Plus if I was the defendant and I get a judgement in my favour I would be seeking costs and they will clearly be larger than you claim amount.

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Understand your POV... but I don't agree. Definition is from the act is:

 

Prohibition of harassment.

 

(1)A person must not pursue a course of conduct—

 

(a)which amounts to harassment of another, and

 

(b)which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.

 

(2)For the purposes of this section, the person whose course of conduct is in question ought to know that it amounts to harassment of another if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to harassment of the other.

 

(3)Subsection (1) does not apply to a course of conduct if the person who pursued it shows—

 

(a)that it was pursued for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime,

 

(b)that it was pursued under any enactment or rule of law or to comply with any condition or requirement imposed by any person under any enactment, or

 

©that in the particular circumstances the pursuit of the course of conduct was reasonable.

 

The bit that I think you're referring to is "that in the particular circumstances the pursuit of the course of conduct was reasonable."

 

It seems like a pretty clear situation to me that they were unreasonable. I think perfectly reasonable for them to write initially, but as soon as they were informed of a dispute they should have stopped enforcement action until they'd investigated. Hydron kept on threatening after they'd been informed twice of the dispute. They have all the correspondence and didn't want to spend time reviewing it by their own admission. They have a profit motive. They didn't follow the guidelines set down by their industry body.

 

So they will have to show their course of conduct was reasonable to rely on that statutory defence... I think that will be difficult, because I think what they did is clearly unreasonable. I may have misread the situation though, be interested to know why you disagree.

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Because it like taking action on a court bailiff who has received instruction from a client and then claiming they are harassing you. You cant do that, the weight of case law around debt is so in Hydron favour it would take an supreme court ruling to over turn this and the cost would cripple most people.

 

Hydron like most debt agency are audited by the CSA and have industry wide process that are regulated , I cant honestly see how they have acted badly by visiting you and they have a right under the gas and electric act 1954 to do this as the meter is the suppliers property and they are there agent. Go after the supplier then you have the weight of case law on your side.

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Hi rockape999, it would be interesting to hear specifics on the case law you mentioned... I am not aware of anything. If there was case law, you would have thought Bank of Scotland would have used it in the Roberts v. Bank of Scotland case which the bank lost.

 

Although it was settled out of court, Ferguson v. British Gas Trading is relevant too. British Gas tried to run the argument that there was no case because their systems were automated, the similarity being that you are saying Hydron are just following instructions blindly. The onus is on each company to make sure they are acting properly, and that includes automated systems, and by extension if the debtor alleges a dispute I would expect the onus to fall on Hydron to check the correspondence they have copies of.

 

It will be interesting to see if Hydron turn up to Magistrates' Court. It seems there's three possible outcomes for that:

 

1) They don't turn up/don't apply for a warrant and don't inform me, so I am there, and further building my case against First Utility for an eventual claim.

2) They turn up and commit perjury by saying there's no dispute. (Remember they've had a detailed particulars of claim from me.)

3) They back out and tell me in advance.

 

It would be great to know which case law you are talking about though, if you can find the reference you're thinking of.

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