Number of households seeking help over energy debt legal action doubles

<span>Citizens Advice offered advice to 349 households who received a county court judgement over unpaid energy bills last year, up from 179 in 2022.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images</span>
Citizens Advice offered advice to 349 households who received a county court judgement over unpaid energy bills last year, up from 179 in 2022.Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The number of households seeking help to deal with court action over their unpaid energy bills has doubled in the last year, according to Citizens Advice.

The charity said suppliers were increasingly opting to take their customers to court to recover their energy debts, which could ruin household finances for years.

It said the use of legal action to pursue unpaid bills appeared to have increased since the industry regulator, Ofgem, introduced strict restrictions on the forced installation of prepayment meters.

Citizens Advice offered advice to 349 households who received a CCJ over unpaid gas and electricity bills last year, up from 179 in 2022,as energy debts reached a record high of £3.1bn.

The number of CCJs are the highest the charity has recorded since 2019 and are understood to represent a fraction of the total number of judgments issued to recover energy debts.

Ofgem’s energy price cap, which fixes the maximum rate for energy bills, fell by £238 on Monday to £1,690 a year for the typical annual dual fuel bill. Data from the regulator showed energy debt continued to rise by £2.8m a day in the second half of last year, meaning many are still struggling to pay their bills.

Madison Stefanuik, a caseworker at Citizens Advice, said: “People are coming to us about this problem more and more often. It’s usually people who are struggling to make ends meet, often trying to prioritise rent and council tax. As a result, they’ve fallen behind on energy bills and have been hit with a CCJ.”

In one case, a billpayer sought help after receiving a CCJ for unpaid energy costs despite providing his supplier with evidence that he had been overcharged. Nik, 40, from Bristol, said he has been repeatedly chased by debt collectors while struggling to communicate with his supplier to resolve the dispute.

Nik said the CCJ has “destroyed” his credit score and his hopes of applying for a mortgage. “I was hoping to get a mortgage in the next couple of years and get on the property ladder, but that’s down the pan now. It’s all been swept from under my feet and I don’t know how. At this point I feel like giving up. It’s had a detrimental effect on my mental health and my life.”

Stefanuik said: “Since rules were tightened on prepayment meters, we’ve noticed some energy suppliers are increasingly using CCJs and sending in bailiffs to force customers to pay their debts.”

Ofgem banned suppliers from fitting prepayment meters in homes in February last year after a Times investigation revealed British Gas had forced meters on households with vulnerable people and children. In January, Ofgem allowed three energy companies – Octopus Energy, Scottish Power and EDF Energy – to restart force-fitting.

Daniel Portis, a deputy director at Energy UK, which represents energy companies, said suppliers only used court action as a last resort after repeated attempts to address debt with the customer had been unsuccessful.

“Given the pressures facing households, suppliers have pledged to go further than ever before in helping customers through tens of millions of pounds of discretionary support and voluntary debt commitments,” he added.

A spokesperson for Ofgem acknowledged that “many people have been struggling to pay their energy bills” which could become “an enduring problem”. The regulator has opened a consultation on energy affordability to clarify “what’s working, what is not and where are the gaps”.