Magistrates have been ordered to stop issuing warrants allowing energy firms to force fit prepayment meters in England and Wales.
One of the country’s most senior judges, Lord Justice Edis, has told the courts to halt the authorisation of warrants amid concerns over vulnerable customers.
The Guardian revealed on Sunday that more than 30,000 warrants have been issued by magistrates since the start of the year, despite concerns raised before Christmas that the courts were approving warrant requests en masse without scrutiny over whether energy customers were vulnerable.
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The energy regulator for Great Britain, Ofgem, last week asked all companies to stop forced installations of prepayment meters after a Times investigation found a debt agency working for British Gas was ignoring customers’ vulnerabilities to break into homes and fit meters.
Edis, who oversees the workings of all courts, said in a statement to magistrates that they had to “act proportionately and with regard to the human rights of the people affected, [in] particular any people with vulnerability”.
He said: “However, it has now come to light that Ofgem has become sufficiently concerned at the operation of suppliers as to ask all energy companies to suspend forced installation of prepayment meters.
“In light of that, applications for warrants of entry for the purpose of installing a prepayment meter should, with immediate effect, cease to be listed and no further such applications are to be determined until further notice.”
Edis said energy firms could still make warrant applications but would need to provide details of their procedures, particularly relating to the vulnerability of people in the household.
Lifting the moratorium would depend on investigations by Ofgem and the government into the area, he said.
Edis said the ruling does not affect applications for warrants in commercial cases “or for other purposes including the investigation of theft or tampering, or safety”.
Ofgem has said it will conduct a review into the handling of prepayment customers and is examining how to remove the cost difference between prepay customers and those on direct debits, who typically pay less for energy. It is also studying whether a social tariff to support low-income households could be introduced.
The business secretary, Grant Shapps, has accused Ofgem of “having the wool pulled over their eyes” by energy company bosses. He has given companies a deadline of Tuesday to report back on what action they will take to help customers who may have had prepayment meters wrongfully installed in their homes – including compensation.
Ministry of Justice figures have shown 32,790 warrants to energy firms were issued last month, including 6,360 warrants the week after Shapps asked suppliers to only install prepayment meters as a last resort. Labour has accused Shapps of “sitting on his hands” during the crisis.