A woman has been praised by a Court of Appeal judge for fighting back against shoddy treatment by gas and electricity giant British Gas.
Lisa Ferguson, a self-employed property investor from Kent, has just been given the green light to sue British Gas for £10,000 for ‘unlawful harassment’ after it sent her a string of bills and threatening letters for money she did not owe.
Ms Ferguson said that her intention was to bring British Gas to book and that most of the money would go to charity.
In the latest Which? energy supplier satisfaction survey, British Gas came second from bottom with an overall customer satisfaction score of just 40%.
British Gas block
Dismissing British Gas’ appeal to have Ms Ferguson’s claim struck out before it went to court, Lord Justice Jacob said: ‘It is one of the glories of this country that every now and then one of its citizens is prepared to take a stand against the big battalions of government or industry.
‘Such a person is Lisa Ferguson, the claimant in this case. Because she funds the claim out of her personal resources, she does so at considerable risk: were she ultimately to lose she would probably have to pay British Gas’s considerable costs.’
Bills and threats
Lord Justice Jacob explained that Ms Ferguson had left British Gas as a customer in 2006, but had continued to receive bills and threatening letters from the company for the next five months.
He added: ‘She wrote letter after letter pointing out that she had no account with British Gas, she made phone calls (with all the difficulty of getting through), but to no avail.’
He said she sometimes received apologies and assurances that the matter would be dealt with ‘but then the bills and threats continued’.
Lord Justice Jacob also had little time for British Gas’s claim that the letters were sent out as a result of an IT error and that Ms Ferguson should not have treated the letters as seriously as if they had come from a person.
‘In Ms Ferguson’s words they should “not simply blame information technology. They should instead start taking responsibility for the running of their company in a competent, honest and ethical manner,”‘ he said.
‘Real people are responsible for programming and entering material into the computer.
‘Moreover, the threats and demands were to be read by a real person, not by a computer. A real person is likely to suffer real anxiety and distress if threatened in the way which Ms Ferguson was.’
A British Gas spokesman said: ‘We have acknowledged an error occurred which resulted in incorrect bills being sent to Ms Ferguson.
‘We’re disappointed to have lost the appeal, however the main case has yet to be heard.
‘The error happened in 2006 at a time of significant system changes which adversely affected a very small number of British Gas customers. Since then the improvement in our customer service is well documented, with a 90% decrease in complaints. Managing director Phil Bentley has written to Ms Ferguson offering his personal apologies.’
Taking an energy supplier to court for poor service should always be a last resort.
Ms Ferguson’s ordeal began in August 2006 and went on for at least five months.
Last year a Which? investigation found that companies sending bills and threats to people over false debts was a widespread problem. The investigation featured the experience of a Which? member who was taken to court by British Gas after it had chased him for a false debt for five years. British Gas apologised and said it was confident his case was unique.
Which? news RSS feeds
For daily consumer news, subscribe to the . If you have an older web browser you may need to copy and paste this link into your newsreader: http://www.which.co.uk/feeds/reviews/news.xml . Find out more about RSS in the Which? guide to news feeds.