Power cuts without warning are illegal

2018-08-03 14:54

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Disconnections without prior notice having been issued to property owners are procedurally unfair, in violation of consumers’ constitutional rights and therefore illegal.

That’s according to legal experts consulted by The Witness after a sustained period of disconnections by the City which has blindsided and angered residents who did not believe their accounts were in arrears.

The electricity disconnections have been a bone of contention between the City and its customers since December, with many saying that they are unfair and illegally conducted.

Residents have cried foul, saying they believe there are irregularities on the part of the municipality. Many claimed they had not received their bills for months and were shocked when they were disconnected while they had been paying a monthly average.

Others said they were cut off without having being made aware that their accounts were in arrears as disconnection notices were not issued and the amounts they were disconnected for did not reflect on their bills. There were also those who had pending queries on accounts before they were disconnected.

Senior associate at Schindlers Attorneys, Maike Gohl, said any disconnections that are done, without prior notice having been given to the owners or occupants of the property 14 days before the intended disconnection, are illegal.

“The purpose of giving a person 14 days is to allow that person to respond to the municipality within that time and to raise any disputes about the charges that are purportedly owing, or alternatively to allow the responsible person to make payment of the arrears or make other payment arrangements with the municipality such as by entering into an instalment payment plan,” explained Gohl.

This sentiment was also shared by an attorney at the Legal Resource Centre, Thabiso Mbense, who said those disconnected without notices or warning can take the municipality to court.

He said such disconnections are unconstitutional as they pertain to the right to dignity as well as the right of administrative action that is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair.

Msunduzi’s 2017/18 credit control and debt collection policy states that “the municipality is obliged to issue any final requests notices or other reminders to customers whose accounts are in arrears, prior to disconnection”. This is in accordance with the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act of 2000, which further states that adequate notice must be given before administrative action is taken.

Msunduzi spokesperson Thobeka Mafumbatha said the disconnections conducted by the City are legal. She said it is the responsibility of the debtor to either come in or contact council for a free copy of the account if they have not received their statement by the 15th of any month.

“In the event that full payment of the account, including any accumulated arrears, is not received on or before the due date, the electricity supply and thereafter the water supply may be disconnected or restricted, unless a formal acknowledgement of debt has been signed by the customer and the necessary payment arrangement for an extension of time has been approved,” she said quoting the City’s credit control and debt collection policy.

Gohl said a customer can be legitimately terminated for non-payment of undisputed arrears, even if they have raised a dispute in relation to other charges on the same account.

Mafumbatha said customers who have lodged a written enquiry in terms of the Municipal Systems Act No. 32 of 2000 are not relieved of the responsibility to maintain regular payment on their accounts.

“Despite having a query lodged on an account, the obligation to pay ... remains. Often we find debtors have lodged queries and take it upon themselves to stop paying the account. In instances like these, disconnection of supply will commence,” she said.

She said where there are queries pending, no action shall be taken against the account holder who has paid, by the due date, an amount equal to the monthly average of the three most recent undisputed accounts in respect of the service in dispute, as well as all undisputed balances on such account.

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