Empowering Change: New Obligations for Energy Retailers to Support Customers Affected by Family Violence

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As of May 1, 2023, significant changes to the National Energy Retail Rules will come into effect, placing new obligations on energy retailers to better support customers impacted by family violence. This landmark rule change, spearheaded by the Australian Energy Market Commission, aims to protect residential and small business customers from the exploitation of essential services by perpetrators. In response to these amendments, the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) has released an interim guidance note detailing their expectations for retailers’ adherence to the new family violence provisions. This article explores the key messages from the AER’s guidelines, such as customer identification, safety and risk considerations, staff training, and the necessary steps for compliance. As the energy sector navigates these transformative changes, our team stands ready to provide assistance in reviewing and implementing processes to ensure full compliance with the new regulations.

1. Introduction

The National Energy Retail Rules will be amended from 1 May 2023 to include new obligations on energy retailers to improve their response and support for customers experiencing family violence. These obligations apply to residential and small business customers and are the result of a rule change process conducted by the Australian Energy Market Commission.

Yesterday, the AER published an interim guidance note outlining the AER’s expectations for how retailers should apply the family violence provisions. You can read this document here. Compliance with the guidance note published by the AER does not guarantee against enforcement action by the AER. However, all retailers should review the guidance note and ensure that their processes and systems are consistent with the AER’s expectations. 

The underlying policy rationale for the new obligation is that essential services can be exploited by perpetrators of family violence to cause harm. Such exploitation can include: using information obtained from retailers to locate those experiencing family violence, controlling access to energy bills or refusing to make payments towards those bills. 

Via our sister law firm, Law Quarter, we provide pro bono assistance to those experiencing family violence, and I have represented a significant number of such individuals in ADVO proceedings. 

Below are some of the key messages from the AER’s guidelines. 

Identification

Where a customer discloses that they have been affected by family violence, they should be believed and must be treated with respect and flexibility. This, similar to obligations applying in relation to customers in hardship, means that self-identification must be taken on face value and that a retailer must not seek to ‘verify’ whether a customer is experiencing family violence. 

Safety and risk

Energy retailers must ensure that they consider safety risks when dealing with affected customers. For example, they must ensure that they do not disclose confidential information to perpetrators, that they have measures in place to secure customer accounts, and that they do not retraumatize affected customers. 

Retailers must ensure that they take into account the particular circumstances of an affected customer. This means that a retailer cannot apply a one-size-fits-all approach and must consider the circumstances of the customer. Retailers are not required to provide crisis family violence support to customers but do need to ensure that staff are equipped with the skills needed to identify the signs of abuse, to respond appropriately including, where appropriate, referring the customer to support services. 

Training

Energy retailers must ensure that their staff are able to:

  • understand the nature and consequences of family violence 
  • identify and engage appropriately and effectively with customers affected by family violence, and 
  • assist customers affected by family violence in accordance with the Retail Rules and the energy retailer’s family violence policy.

Energy retailers will need to conduct training across their business on family violence, both

at the stage of initial onboarding of staff and by way of frequent refresher training.

What retailers must do:

Retailers should ensure that they have processes in place for:

  • Prioritization of safety for affected customers
  • Implementation of a family violence policy
  • Mandatory skills requirement for staff dealing with affected customers
  • Implementation of a secure process for customer identification
  • Consideration of the financial impacts of family violence before debt recovery
  • Recognition of family violence as a cause of hardship and payment difficulties
  • Prohibition of de-energization without considering the potential impact on affected customers and consideration of whether other persons are responsible for the debt or reasons giving rise to the de-energization.
  • Protection of affected customer information
  • No requirement for documentary evidence of family violence
  • Provision of information about external support services
  • No breach of contract provisions for retailers and affected customers

How we can assist

This interim guidance note will be updated, and a final version will be issued in 2024 to include any civil penalty provisions and to clarify or refine aspects following feedback from energy retailers.

If you would like assistance in reviewing or implementing processes to ensure compliance, please let us know. 

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