This factsheet is for people whose utilities supply may have been damaged or who may have difficulty paying their bill because of a disaster. It will explain your legal rights and options and has the contact details of organisations that can help you. You can order a hard copy of this factsheet from Victoria Legal Aid.
What do utilities include?
Your utilities include your electricity, gas and water supply, and telephone supply and connection.
Gas, electricity and water
What if I am having trouble with my service?
You will need to contact your retailer. Your retailer is the company that looks after connections, billing and customer service.
If you have moved because of the bushfires, you need to contact your retailer to be connected at a new property. The connection should be on a date you agree to or within 10 business days. If you are changing retailers, your new connection must be made within one to two business days.
If you are unsure who your retailer is, visit the ‘Consumer Information’ section of the Essential Services Commission website. By clicking on either the ‘Energy’ or ‘Water’ links, you will be able to see a list of energy (gas and electricity) and water companies.
What if I am having trouble paying bills?
If you are having trouble paying your bill because of the bushfires – for example, you lost your job or are finding it hard to get by – tell your retailer. Your retailer should be able to help you set up a payment plan, and you might be able to get help under a 'hardship policy'. You cannot be disconnected from services in this situation.
The law says that each retailer must have a hardship policy that allows for:
- agreement to fair and reasonable payment arrangements (for example, instalment plans)
- suspension (stopping) disconnection or any debt collection activity
- telling you about concessions and government assistance (for example, grants), and how to get these.
For more information on how to avoid disconnection when you are having trouble with money, contact the Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria on 1800 500 509 and read the Consumer Action Law Centre’s factsheets Water debt and Electricity and gas debt. If you live in a caravan park or rooming or boarding house, you may have different rights. Contact the Tenants Union of Victoria’s Advice Line on (03) 9416 2577 for information.
Can I set up my own generator?
If you are unable to have your electricity supply reconnected it is important that you do not try to connect permanent generators yourself. Connecting generators is a dangerous job and is illegal. They must be connected by a licensed electrician.
I have experienced damage due to a power surge or power failure. Who pays?
If you have experienced damage due to power surge or from power failure (for example, damage to appliances or food), you may be able to make a claim for this. Lodge a claim with your retailer if this has happened to you. If the matter is not sorted out with your retailer, contact the Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria on 1800 500 509.
What if my utilities problem has not been sorted out?
If you have tried to sort out a problem with your gas, electricity or water company and it has not been resolved, contact the Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria on 1800 500 509. They will contact the provider and ask them to try again. If you have tried to sort out the problem with your provider more than once, your matter can be investigated by the Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria. This means a 'Conciliator' will manage your case, look at your situation, consider the law and try to sort out an agreement. Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria is a free service, is independent of the government and the utilities companies, and can legally force the supplier to deal with your complaint. You must contact the Energy and Water Ombudsman Victoria within 12 months of the problem first arising.
Telephone and internet
What if I am having trouble with my service?
Although Telstra is responsible for telephone lines in Victoria, you need to contact your telephone service provider (if it is not Telstra) about your damaged telephone line. However, if you had more than one phone socket in your home, you will need to contact a registered cabler to fix any other phone sockets. Your telephone service provider only has the responsibility to look after the first socket.
What if I am having troubles paying my bills?
Contact your provider and tell them you live in a bushfire-affected area and are having problems paying your bill. They may have special arrangements in place to help bushfire-affected people.
See if your provider can place a hold on your bill while you work together to find a way for you to pay off your debt. You may also want to see if you can pay your bill after it is due and/or pay your bill in instalments. The provider can ask for evidence of your financial hardship if you want to pay over a longer period.
You should always contact your telephone or internet provider when you are having trouble paying a bill. If you do not do this, your service might be disconnected or your credit record affected. However, your provider must not take collection action against you while you are discussing or undertaking a payment arrangement.
If you disagree about a bill amount, ask the provider to investigate your bill and try to sort it out with them.
What if my telephone or internet problem has not been sorted out?
You can contact the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman on 1800 062 058 after you have first tried to sort out the problem with your provider and an agreement has not been reached. The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman is a free service that helps sort out disagreements between customers and utility providers. It is independent of the government and the telephone and internet companies. You must contact the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman within two years of the problem first happening.
The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman will contact your provider and ask that they try to sort out the problem. Your provider has 10 days to investigate your situation and try to sort things out. It is up to you to contact the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman if the problem is not sorted out by this time. The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman may then have an investigations officer look after your case. They will investigate the situation, work out the issues and try to help you reach agreement with your provider.
The law says that the telephone and internet companies must obey the decisions made by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.
To find out more, visit the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman website.
I have received bills for services that have been offered for free after disaster. Are these genuine offers?
If you start getting bills for services that were offered for free after disaster, for example free mobile phones or a diversion service, contact the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman on 1800 062 058 or Bushfire Legal Help on 1800 113 432.
Help to pay bills
If you have a government concession card, you can get a discount on your utilities bill. Call your utilities provider and give them the details of your concession card.
For information on other concessions and Utility Relief Grants, contact the Department of Human Services Concessions Unit on 1800 658 521.
Where to get help
Victoria Legal Aid
Tel: 1300 792 387, Monday to Friday, 8:45 am to 5:15 pm.
For free legal information visit www.legalaid.vic.gov.au.
Essential Services Commission
Tel: 9032 1300 or 1300 664 969, Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm
Energy and Water Ombudsman (Victoria)
Tel: 1800 500 509, Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 5 pm
Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman
Tel: 1800 062 058, Monday to Friday, 9 am and 5 pm
Consumer Action Law Centre
Tel: 1800 466 477 or 9629 6300 (legal advice), Monday to Friday, 10 am to 1 pm
Consumer Affairs Victoria
Tel: 1300 558 181, Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm
Tenants Union of Victoria
Tel: 9416 2577 (advice line), Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 9 am to 4 pm and Wednesday 12:30 pm to 7:30 pm
Counselling and support
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Interpreters – Translating and Interpreting Service
Tel: 131 450, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Hearing impairment – National Relay Service
Tel: 133 677 (TTY service) and 1300 555 727 (speak and listen), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.