This guideline was published on 13 January 2023.
Guideline 3 (2022): Clear and unambiguous information or advice for residential customers anticipating or facing payment difficulties
Retailers must provide clear and unambiguous information about the assistance available under the payment difficulty framework in the Energy Retail Code of Practice (the code). This obligation helps customers to understand and access their entitlements when needed. The following guideline sets out our expectations of compliance with this obligation.
Purpose and application
We provide guidance on the content and meaning of the phrase ‘clear and unambiguous information [or advice] about the assistance available’ in Part 6 of the code, titled ‘Assistance for residential customers anticipating or facing payment difficulties’, and its interaction with the disconnection process set out in Part 10 of the code, titled Disconnection of premises.
Information about payment assistance must be provided at all relevant times
Clause 141 of the code is part of the payment difficulty framework. It relevantly provides:
Clause 141 Retailer obligations
- A retailer must…
(c) at all times when it is relevant to do so, including on being contacted by a residential customer, give the residential customer in a timely manner clear and unambiguous information about the assistance available under this Part;
Clause 141(1)(c) applies at all times where the provision of information about the assistance available under Part 6 is relevant.
Case study 1
A residential customer anticipates having difficulty paying a future bill. The customer contacts their retailer to explain their circumstances and seek advice as to their options. The retailer must provide the customer with clear and unambiguous information about the assistance available under Part 6 of the code. This is the case even though the customer has not missed a bill or accrued arrears.
The customer subsequently missing a bill or accruing arrears would also trigger an obligation to provide information about assistance under Part 6, it is relevant to provide the information to the customer at the time they call and make the initial inquiry.
Information about payment assistance must be at multiple stages in the disconnection process
Section 40SM(1)(f) of the Electricity Industry Act 2000 and section 49DO(1)(f) of the Gas Industry Act 2001 require that a retailer comply with any requirements specified in the code prior to disconnecting a customer for non-payment of a bill. The code requires retailers to provide information about the assistance available under Part 6 at specific instances as part of a process under Part 10 of the code:
- within 21 business days of the pay-by-date where a residential customer has not paid their bill by the pay-by-date and has arrears of more than $55: clause 129(2) of the code
- when the retailer issues a disconnection warning notice: clause 185(1)(c)(ii) of the code
- after the issue of a disconnection warning notice, where a retailer must take all reasonable steps to provide a residential customer with this information: clause 187(1)(a)(ii).
The intent of the provisions requiring retailers to provide customers with ‘clear and unambiguous’ information about their entitlements under Part 6 is to ensure customers facing payment difficulty understand their rights and that disconnection is a measure of last resort. This understanding promotes the outcome of customers contacting their retailer and arranging the assistance which best suits their circumstances, including at specified points in the process that can lead to a disconnection.
The meaning of ‘clear and unambiguous’
The obligation to provide ‘clear and unambiguous’ information should be applied with regard to the following considerations:
- The information must be accurate and not misleading.
- The information must be expressed in plain language, legible, and presented clearly and appropriately having regard to its nature as per clause 139(1) of the code.
- The information must not have any major omissions of the assistance available under Part 6. It should clearly identify the forms of standard assistance made available by the retailer in accordance with clause 125(2), as well as the tailored assistance measures in clause 128(1) of the code.
The code does not prescribe the words to be used to provide the “clear and unambiguous information [or advice]” but they should be sufficient to inform the customer of their entitlements for standard assistance (clause 125) and for tailored assistance (clause 128).
Framing the assistance available as an entitlement
When a retailer provides information about the assistance available under Part 6, it will be misleading for retailers to frame such assistance as an option which the retailer has discretion to provide or for which the customer ‘may be eligible’. The assistance set out in Part 6 of the code are minimum standards of assistance to which residential customers anticipating or facing payment difficulties are entitled under standard and tailored assistance as per clauses 121, 124 and 126 of the code.
Retailers must therefore frame Part 6 assistance as an ‘entitlement’ or ‘right’ which the customer has and which the retailer ‘will’ or ‘must’ offer. We consider that language which implies Part 6 assistance is at the discretion of, or form of kindness provided by the retailer, is misleading and non-compliant with the requirements of Part 6 of the code.
Is a different level of information required at each stage?
In addition to the three specific points outlined above, there will likely be other points in time at which a retailer opts to contact a customer with information about payment assistance. There is a discretion for retailers to determine the level of detail regarding a customer’s entitlements to be presented at additional points, provided that both the objective of Part 6 and the mandatory requirements of the code are met.
Distinguishing between electronic and hard copy communications
Clause 139 of the code relevantly provides:
139 Written communications
Despite clause 10, a retailer must give or send by post to a residential customer any written communication required or permitted to be given or sent under, or in connection with, this Part unless the residential customer has given explicit informed consent to receiving it in another way.
Where the customer has provided explicit informed consent to receiving communications electronically, a retailer may provide summary information about the assistance in the body of an email accompanied by a web link directly to more detailed information, provided the retailer complies with the relevant requirements of the code.
The information provided must relate to the relevant account
Customers may hold multiple energy accounts with a retailer, each subject to a process potentially leading to disconnection at the same time. In these circumstances, retailers must clearly indicate to which energy account such information relates. The provisions of Part 10 require that information be provided to the customer in respect of each account. A retailer providing clear and unambiguous advice about the assistance available under Part 6 to a customer in relation to one account only will not satisfy the requirements of the code.
Case study 2
A customer experiencing financial difficulty was in arrears on their gas and electricity accounts. The customer received disconnection warning notices for both accounts, but clear and unambiguous information about the assistance available under Part 6 of the code was only provided in relation to the electricity account. This left the customer unaware that assistance also was available in relation to their gas account. The customer entered into a payment arrangement for the electricity account only, resulting in disconnection of their gas supply.
Code obligations will only be met if information about assistance under Part 6 is provided in relation to the energy account subject to potential disconnection. Clear and unambiguous information regarding each separate energy account subject to a disconnection process must be provided to the customer.
This guideline has been approved for publication by the commission pursuant to section 13 of the Essential Services Commission Act 2001. This guideline does not provide or create legal obligations. Its purpose is to assist compliance by regulated entities. Where relevant, areas of better practice or case studies are detailed in breakout boxes.
Information must be contained in the disconnection warning notice
The code outlines requirements to be listed on the disconnection warning notice in clause 185(1). All information listed in clause 185(1) of the code must be provided in the disconnection warning notice.
While we encourage retailers to provide additional notice to customers to meet their best endeavours requirements, retailers cannot satisfy the requirements of clause 185 by providing partial information across multiple notices.
Case study 3
A retailer sent a customer a 'disconnection warning notice' that did not contain information about re-connection procedures or state a charge would apply for re-connection (as required under clause 185(1)(f) of the code).
The retailer later, as an additional step to the requirements in the code, sent a further notice that included this information about re-connection, but it did not contain details of the energy ombudsman (as required under clause 185(1)(g) of the code).
Although no specific wording is required under clause 185(1), the disconnection warning notice must clearly outline the procedure for re-connecting a customer's energy supply, and any changes that may be associated with the re-connection. The disconnection warning notice must also advise the recipient about the existance and operation of the energy ombudsman, including contact. details.
In the above example the retailer has failed to comply with the requirements under clause 185(1) as the mandatory information was not set out in full in either notice.
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View the code
View the latest version of the Energy Retail Code of Practice.
|Version and Published date
|Relevant code and notes
Version 3: [13 January 2023] Guideline 3 (2023)
Added section 'Information must be contained in the disconnection warning notice'.
Minor amendments to case studies 1 and 2
Version 2: [13 April 2022] Guideline 3 (2022)
|Energy Retail Code of Practice (version 1) – amendments made to address circumstances of multiple energy accounts subject to a disconnection process and update to reflect the remaking of the Energy Retail Code of Practice and transitioning of the disconnection framework to the Electricity Industry Act 2000 and Gas Industry Act 2001.
Version 1: 7 October 2020 (Guideline 2 (2020)
|Energy Retail Code (version 20).
 129 Information about assistance available
(2) A residential customer who has not paid a bill by its pay-by date and who has arrears of more than $55 (inclusive of GST) is entitled to be contacted by the retailer, within 21 business days after that pay-by-date and given information about the assistance to which the residential customer is entitled under this Division and how to access it.
 185 Disconnection warning notices
(1) A disconnection warning notice must:
(c) if the relevant customer is a residential customer who is entitled to receive assistance under Part 6:
(iii) if the relevant customer is or may be eligible for other assistance provided by government or community service providers, give the relevant customer clear information about how to access that assistance;
 187 Residential customer only to be disconnected as a last resort for non-payment
(1) For the purposes of section 40SM(1)(f) of the Electricity Industry Act and section 48DO(1)(f) of the Gas Industry Act the following requirements are specified as requirements that a retailer or exempt electricity seller must comply with in order to arrange disconnection of the premises of a residential customer:
(a) the retailer or exempt electricity seller:
(ii) has, after the issue of the disconnection warning notice, taken all reasonable steps to provide the residential customer clear and unambiguous information about the assistance available under Part 6;