Victoria, Australia utility policies support victims of family violence

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In Victoria, Australia, two initiatives are seeking to increase protection for victims of family violence in relation to utilies such as energy and water supplies.

The Victorian Energy and Water Ombudsman (EWOV) released a position statement on family violence. The Victorian Essential Services Commission (ESC) revised the water code to improve protections for victims of family violence.

This was in response to recommendations from the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence.

Position statement on family violence

The Victorian Energy and Water Ombudsman (EWOV) released a position statement on family violence. This resulted from utility debt being identified as a key contributor to the accumulation of household debt and financial insecurity for women experiencing family violence.

EWOV provides a dispute resolution services for disputes between customers and energy and water companies. The position statement acknowledges that EWOV "has a critical role in assisting victims of family violence."

The EWOV position statement sets out common scenarios faced by victims of family violence:

"Family violence includes economic or financial abuse. Examples of utility related economic abuse can include scenarios where the abusive partner:

  • insists the account is in a victim’s name and refuses to contribute to the cost
  • puts a service in the sole name of the victim without their knowledge or consent
  • holds an account jointly and refuses to contribute to the cost
  • holds an account in their name alone and does not pay the bills, resulting in disconnection
  • holds the account in their name and threatens to have the service cut off, or has it cut off, when they leave the family home."

It also notes that often, while attempting to sort out broader issues in their lives, energy or water debt may not be a high priority for customers who have experienced or continue to experience family violence until the issue reaches a crisis point (such as supply being disconnected).

The position statement acknowledges common key issues for the water and energy industries in responding to these scenarios. It sets out expectations of providers covering the following areas:

  • Liability and consent issues
  • Joint accounts
  • Affordability and hardship assistance
  • Debt collection/default listing or loss of supply
  • Privacy and safety issues
  • Customer service issues.

Revision of water code

The Victorian Essential Services Commission (ESC) is a Victorian government agency that is set up to promote the interests of consumers by regulating the energy, water, local government and transport sectors. The ESC has revised the Victoria water code. According to the ESC press release,

"The code changes will require water businesses to develop and implement family violence policies that, as a minimum, address:

  • implementing training and support for frontline staff dealing with customers affected by family violence
  • preventing the disclosure of private and confidential customer information to perpetrators
  • enabling customers to access existing payment difficulty programs provided by businesses
  • minimising the need for customers to repeatedly tell their story to different staff referring customers to appropriate support services."

Local domestic violence service providers welcomed the initiative, and will be working with the water companies to implement training. Water businesses are also supportive of the changes.

ESC Chairman Dr Ron Ben-David said the plan is to roll out these changes to the energy and gas sectors after implementing the changes and training with water companies.

Further information

For more information about women's experience of economic abuse through utilities and recommended best practices, see the Australian report Helping Not Hindering: Uncovering Domestic Violence & Utility Debt (Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre, 2014).