Vulnerable people facing forced installation of pre-payment meters may be receiving inconsistent advice from Scottish courts, as concerns are raised over the process of approving warrants.

Energy suppliers are permitted under OFGEM rules to forcibly move customers onto pre-payment tariffs if they are behind on their bills and all other options have been exhausted.

According to Money Advice Trust 5.5 million people across the UK are behind on their energy bills.

Pre-payment options typically make bills more expensive, and are disproportionally used by those who can least afford to pay higher rates.

The Citizens Advice Bureau reports that 48% of people on pre-payment plans receive benefits advice, with 25% receiving food bank advice.

Most live in SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) categories 1, 2 and 3 - the most deprived - with 37% unable to work.

In a response to energy campaign group Power to the People, which fights price rises, during the SNP leadership campaign First Minister Humza Yousaf stated "this practice is simply unacceptable and must stop" and said "no-one should be coerced into having a pre-payment meter, particularly the most vulnerable among us".

The legislation allowing forced entry to install pre-payment meters is governed by the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954, which is a reserved matter, but Mr Yousaf pledged to "see what can be done within the devolved settlement" and work with SNP MPs to "challenge this practice at every turn" at Westminster.

Read More: Cost of living crisis: Prepayment meters seeing Scots go without food

In February Senior Presiding Judge of England and Wales, Lord Justice Edis, said applications for warrants of entry by energy companies for the purpose of installing a pre-payment meter should, "with immediate effect, cease to be listed”.

In Scotland the process involves each application being heard by a Justice of the Peace, who must be satisfied that the application meets statutory tests.

This, in theory, means bulk applications and rubber-stamping of warrants is not possible north of the border.

A freedom of information request for each Scottish sheriffdom asked:

  • How many warrants granting energy companies entry to people's homes to fit pre-payment meters has each sheriffdom received in 2021-22?
  • How many warrants were granted?
  • How many warrants were challenged?
  • On average, how much time is spent considering each warrant?

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service said it did not hold the requested information as it "has no operational reason to retain copies of the warrant or to record whether the warrant was granted or refused".

The Herald: EON prepayment card

However, it was discovered that "a small number of courts have recorded the number of warrants granted".

The data does not record the number of pre-payment meters fitted but rather the number of warrants granted under the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act. It is not inclusive of all court locations.

It stated that 4,822 were granted from January 2022 to the end of October 2022. However, the SCTS later updated these figures for the whole year and said 3,282 had been granted.

Given the backlog in Scottish courts following the Covid pandemic, concerns have been raised over whether sufficient scrutiny is being undertaken by a Justice of the Peace in all cases.

Campaign group Power to the People sought to clarify what steps a person would be able to take in the event of being issued with a seven day letter.

Calls were placed to various sheriff courts using the same script. The caller told the court that they were contacting on behalf of their 85-year-old mother for whom they held power of attorney.

Read More: Councils 'must be given flexibility to tackle cost-of-living crisis'

They then said: "She received a letter through her door earlier this week from Scottish Power saying that they are going to the Justice of the Peace court to seek a warrant to forcibly install a prepayment meter. I think she owes them about £850. I’m really concerned for her.  

"Now, I know that we got her onto the priority services register a couple of years ago but she’s 75 and to be honest I think she’s in such a vulnerable position I don’t think they have the right to just put a meter in there to try and recover the debt. So basically, I’m wondering what I can do to challenge the letter?"

However, there was no consistent response given.

Dunoon Sheriff Court claimed that they were not qualified to comment on any aspect of the process and should reach out to a solicitor. They said to email in the warrant letter and any questions about it. They also suggested to phone the company to check to see if the request for a warrant was genuine.

Elgin Sheriff Court said that the caller should first contact a solicitor as they were not legally qualified to provide advice. The caller – claiming to have Powers of Attorney – was told to 'just pay' the amount. Upon being told that this was not possible, they suggested that if the case did go to court, the Justice of the Peace would hear the warrant individually, and that all the circumstances of the case would be heard.

The Herald:

Inverness Sheriff Court claimed to never have heard of any case coming through their court before challenging such a warrant. They also said that they were not legally qualified to provide any details on the process of challenging a warrant, and would only be able to do so once a warrant had been granted.

Meanwhile, at Edinburgh Sheriff Court there is a dedicated phone line specifically for energy companies looking to apply for a warrant.

At the courts in Glasgow and Paisley - which is also dealing with warrant requests for Kilmarnock Sheriff Court - though the caller was told to call back with all the details of the seven day letter, and it was likely the warrant would be rejected.

Monica Lennon MSP said: "It is appalling that forced prepayment meters are still allowed in Scotland.

“In one year alone, an estimated 3000 instances of forced entry to install these devices is hugely worrying and must be highly distressing for those affected.

“It is shocking that any court would disregard the poverty that people are experiencing due to the obscene cost of energy and other household bills by telling individuals to ‘just pay it’.

“We must put an end to this cruel practice in Scotland and follow the rest of the UK by stopping the force-fitting of prepayment meters.”

Power to the People said: "Rather than protecting the most vulnerable, the courts appear to be throwing Scots to the wolves by waving through warrants for forced entry.

"Energy companies are profiting from the pain of customers left in the dark by inconsistent and unclear legal guidelines. Decision makers must act to clarify the process.”

A spokesperson for the Judicial Office for Scotland said: "In Scotland, no utility warrants are considered in bulk. Each application is considered separately by a Justice of the Peace based on its individual facts and circumstances, taking into account the relevant statutory tests.

“Guidance is also in place for Justices of the Peace which sets out the steps in the process which should be followed when an application is being considered.

“These measures aim to safeguard the vulnerability of the domestic customer and that any action taken is proportionate. Opposed applications are heard by a sheriff.”