Victims of Joburg billing chaos have hopes dashed
The hopes of frustrated Joburg residents who received incorrect accounts from the city and who then hoped the National Consumer Commission (NCC) would help have been dashed.
In a strong stand, welcomed by angry consumers, the NCC last year issued the city with 45 compliance notices ordering it to rectify residents’ accounts, failing which it would be liable for penalties between R100 000 and R500 000 per matter.
The council, however, appealed to the National Consumer Tribunal (NCT), asking for a review and cancellation of the compliance notices, arguing that they were not valid.
In its recent judgment, the tribunal agreed with the council, saying the compliance certificates were invalid because the commission did not conduct proper investigations into each and every complaint.
The central issue which the tribunal had to decide was whether the notices were issued in compliance with the law.
The NCC claimed the city acted within the National Consumer Act’s definition of “prohibited conduct” and that there was evidence of breach of conduct in relation to the issuing of incorrect accounts.
The commission argued that it could form a reasonable opinion without conducting an investigation, which does not require any field work or going to the premises or calling for documents or applying for search and seizure, and that it was not practically possible to do because of the number of complaints.
The tribunal, however, found that because the NCC was being called “toothless” and facing criticism by consumers and the media, it hastily decided to issue the compliance notices.
“It is clear that no individual complaint was ever discussed with the applicants (the city), and complaints were not investigated on an individual basis.
The (NCC) formed the opinion that the city’s billing systems were leading to consumer complaints and considered all other complaints in this light without further investigation into the matter.”
The notices did not clearly state or set out what the prohibited conduct was, and the council was never informed it was being investigated in terms of the consumer act.
It was also not informed that its failure to resolve consumer complaints within the NCC’s specified time period was regarded as prohibited conduct, the tribunal found.
It also found the city was never presented with the facts regarding each complaint and it was therefore never given an opportunity to ascertain and explain why the resolution was taking an inordinately lengthy period of time.
“The (NCC) assumes that the facts presented by consumers were correct and issued compliance notices without establishing for itself that the facts were correct,” the tribunal found.
“The tribunal accepts that this is an extremely difficult situation for all concerned, especially for consumers, and the tribunal is mindful of their stress and frustration.”
The complaints relate to inaccurate accounts, accounts not received, refunds, the reading of water and electricity meters, and pensioners’ rebates.
The Joburg Advocacy Group, speaking on behalf of many complainants, said it was disappointed at the ruling. It served to demonstrate yet again that it was virtually impossible to hold local government to account for failures in good governance and service delivery.