What to do when you have a grievance with your Water Company


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Water is the source of all life and arguably the most important commodity on Earth.

Everyday over fifty million households and non-household consumers in England and Wales are provided with good quality water, sanitation and drainage services.

In 1989 ten existing water and sewerage public authorities were privatised and have been operating under a regulatory framework ever since, providing wholesale water and sewerage services to consumers within their supply area.

In April 2017 the government complicated this arrangement for non-household consumers, by deciding that they could no longer receive their water and sewerage services direct from the wholesalers, and "opened the market", allowing private companies to apply to become water and sewerage Retailers, much in the same way that the Gas and Electricity industry operates. The water and sewerage infrastructure is still operated and maintained by the supply area's Wholesaler, but non-household consumers can now decide which Retailer bills them, provides them with the required customer service, and acts as the go between with the Wholesaler.

This arrangement and licensing framework is intended to protect a high standard of service at a fair price whilst also taking into consideration environmental concerns. The framework has ensured constant investment and upgrades in the industry to improve assets and services. As well as these regulations the industry must comply with national laws.

Unfortunately, and inevitably, issues and disputes can arise between consumers and their Wholesaler / Retailer, but as a result of the framework in situ governing how the Wholesalers and Retailers operate, this does mean that there are several methods of recourse available should you wish to raise a complaint against your water company.

These follow a similar procedure regardless of your location and service supplier:

Directly

  • The first port of call is always to raise your issue directly with the water company themselves.
  •  Each company is different, and the procedure will vary in this regard but it is normally a two-step process involving a detailed investigation into your complaint and a proposed resolution should they consider that they have in some way erred. This does vary from one company to the next and it is important to follow the company's specific complaints procedure.
  • All Wholesalers and Retailers are governed by the Water Supply and Sewerage Services (Customer Service Standards) Regulations 2008, which (among other things) confirms that all complaints should be dealt with within 10 working days (wherever possible) and compels the Company to pay compensation of £20 if this deadline is not met.

Consumer Council for Water (CCW)

  • Should the Company fail to resolve your complaint to your satisfaction, then the next step would be to refer the complaint to the CCW.
  •  CCW is an independent consumer organisation that deals with complaints about water companies, they pitch themselves as being the Consumers champion, taking Water Companies to task for any perceived failing.
  • Contact can be made in a variety of ways; written by post, by email or on the phone. They will ask you to provide evidence of correspondence between you and your water company.
  • CCW will review your complaint, and engage with the Water Company on your behalf, taking them to task for any perceived failing that may have occurred, and challenging them on any decision that has been made on the complaint. If they consider that the Water Company has erred, then they can suggest to the Company that some form of compensation is provided to resolve your complaint.
  • It is important to note that the CCW cannot compel the Water Company to act, they can only make recommendations and as such if the Water Company disagrees CCW cannot force them to do anything.

Water Redress Scheme (WATRS)

  • Should CCW fail to secure a favourable outcome for you then they will direct you to submit a WATRS application.
  •  WATRS act as an independent adjudication scheme for disputes between customers and Water Companies and was created to complement the mediation and investigation that is undertaken by CCW. It is a free scheme for consumers and serves as the last bastion for most customer complaints.
  • It cannot investigate all types of complaints however (such as matters that are better referred to Ofwat), and its powers are limited as to what resolution it can order (capped at £10,000 for household and £25,000 for non-household) and as such you should ensure that the nature of your claim is one that can be best determined by reviewing the Scheme Rules.
  • Application to WATRS must be done within 6 months of the closure letter from CCW, if you fail to do so then WATRS will not be able to adjudicate on your dispute.
  • The Scheme works in a similar way to most Court claims, you initially submit all relevant information to WATRS (including any and all evidence you may have to corroborate your complaint), they will then put this to the Water Company who have 10 days to either offer a settlement to you or to produce a written defence to the claim.
  • If the claim is defended by the Water Company their response will be sent to you and you will have 5 days to comment on its contents.
  • A legally qualified WATRS adjudicator will then review the file and a preliminary decision will be sent to both parties. Comments will be requested from both parties and then the adjudicator will make their final decision.
  • If you accept the final decision within 20 days then it will be binding on the Water Company. Unlike CCW, WATRS has the power to bind the Water Company to undertake actions, and such decision will become binding if accepted by you.

Ofwat

  • Ofwat is the non-ministerial government body responsible for regulating and overseeing all water companies. Ofwat grants the Water Companies' licences, oversees the production of legislation governing Water Companies, and sets how much Water Companies can charge their customers and spend each year. They are also responsible for overseeing and investigating some of the main legislative duties to which the Water Companies have to adhere and any complaints that may arise in relation to these duties.
  •  Given the vast power that Ofwat holds in relation to the running of Water Companies then it is safe to say that most Water Companies do fear the wrath of Ofwat, and sometimes the threat of a referral to Ofwat is enough to have the Water Company capitulate depending upon the nature / value of the dispute.
  • Much like with CCW complaints, if the issue is one over which Ofwat has to become involved then they will investigate the matter and give a determination as to what should be done.
  • Again this can be financial compensation, sanctions for the Water Company, or the compulsion for the Water Company to undertake some form of action to resolve the dispute.

Legal action

  • If all of the other methods of dispute resolution have failed then (assuming you are within the relevant limitation period) you still retain the right to issue legal proceedings against the Water Company for the remedy you seek.
  •  The caveat on this of course is that each claim has to be assessed on its own merits, and what may be a clear case of customer service failings does not automatically mean that you have an actionable claim against the Water Company.
  • Whether you have a legitimate claim will depend upon:
  1. who you are (private consumer or non-household business);
  2. who your complaint is against (Wholesaler or Retailer);
  3. and the nature of your complaint against the other side
  • The answers to the above will go some way to determining whether you have an actionable claim against the other party. For example, if you are a private consumer looking to raise an issue with your water and sewerage wholesaler, you would be unable to issue any claim against them for breach of contract, as there is no contract governing your relationship (the relationship being founded in statute). Instead, you could only bring claims for breach of any statutory duty, or claims in tort (negligence, nuisance etc).
  • Inversely, if you are a non-household consumer who wishes to bring a claim against your retailer, then there is a contract governing your relationship and as such you could pursue them for breach of contract, breach of statutory duty, and tort.
  • The cruel reality is that the various changes to the Water and Sewerage industry has made it a minefield for litigants in person to navigate successfully, leading to many instances of people paying to pursue claims which have no chances of success, or people not knowing how best to pursue their claim and thus losing out on redress to which they would be legitimately entitled.
  • As such if at all possible, then, it is always beneficial to seek independent legal advice on this before issuing proceedings to ensure that you have a viable claim.

Conclusion

There are several ways in which a complaint against a Water Company can be raised but unfortunately this does not always mean that you will obtain the redress you desire.

You should always explore the free options available to you initially to obtain resolution, but if they fail then in some circumstances you still retain the option of issuing proceedings against the Water Company. However, before doing so, wherever possible you should seek independent legal advice.

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