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There are a couple of stories in the news about energy firms breaking into houses because of unpaid erroneous bills. The common features of relevance are:

  • There was debate about the validity of energy bills at a premises
  • The errors are so obvious that if a court had issued a warrant then that would have been news, and there is no mention of a warrant
  • The property was entered while it was empty, by the front door lock being picked or drilled
  • The entry occurred while the premises were unoccupied
  • The premises was left without anything being taken after the error became obvious
  • The energy company apologised and appeared to admit the event, but no criminal charges are mentioned

Assuming there was no warrant, is this legal? Does it matter that the debt was not owed, or would it be the same if the homeowner really owed their energy company money?

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    These seem like two very different cases implicating different legal considerations. The first seems to be a debt collector attempting to seize property to pay a bill or intimidate the resident who they thought owed money. The second seems to be an attempt to check an electric meter (potentially implicating a mistaken belief in the existence of a utility easement based right to enter).
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 4 at 13:58
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    @ohwilleke I do not know what they are trying to achieve, but this is not the only news about heavy handed tactics by these companies so it seems that they are doing it because they get away with it, and presumably some people are intimidated by this and pay up. Why they get away with it seems to be the big question.
    – User65535
    Jan 4 at 14:02
  • Out of curiosity, are electric meters indoors sometimes in the UK? I want to say it has been depicted in media that gas meters are sometimes. In the US, the meter is the electric company's property and won't install it inside a structure; maybe even against code, can't remember.
    – RomaH
    Jan 5 at 14:21
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    Electricity meters are frequently inside the home in the UK. I have never lived anywhere where they were not.
    – User65535
    Jan 5 at 14:24
  • @RomaH I live in a condo apartment building in the US, all our unit electric meters are in a cabinet in the superintendant's office. But I think most private homes have outside meters.
    – Barmar
    Jan 5 at 15:43

2 Answers 2

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The two cases are very different.

The first involves a debt collector entering onto property in connection with an allegedly overdue utility bill, which is something a debt collector ordinarily would not be permitted to do without a money judgment following a court proceeding and further court orders authorizing collection of the debt from tangible personal property on the premises.

This is pretty much completely without justification and realistically is a criminal offense as well as a basis for a civil lawsuit, although the modest money damages involved may have made such a lawsuit ill advised for the resident impacted by the unlawful entry.

Notably, in this case Scottish Power, "admitted the error, apologised and offered compensation." I doubt that an American utility company would have had the good sense and grace to act the same way. The story doesn't make entirely clear if these were Scottish Power employees or debt collection contractors hired by Scottish Power. The question implies that abusive utility company collection agents are a systemic problem in Scotland, although the article itself does not.

The second involves a utility company, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), drilling a lock to enter onto property in order to check a utility meter, in a building where some other tenant at a different address was not paying an electric bill on a different meter, which presents a very different issue. The customer at the address drilled had reasonably documented the utility company's mistake, but the company, for some reason, didn't believe the customer and didn't make arrangements to visit consensually when the customer was home. Instead, while the customer was work on Wednesday two male SSE workers drilled through the lock to gain entry into the flat, and when they got in and looked at the meter, they realized that they were mistaken.

The fact that the story describes the two men as a "warrant team" leaves open the possibility that a warrant for entry was received from a court based upon bad information from the utility company when it should have known better, although that issue isn't clarified in the story.

The customer “lodged a formal complaint against SSE for unlawful entry and reported the incident to the police.” And an ombudsman elevated the issue.

According to the utility company, it "offered to replace all the locks in her property and offered her a goodwill gesture payment of £500. Both were rejected by Ms Harvey who wanted compensation for further rental, hotel and new property costs which we were unable to agree to."

Utility companies will generally have an easement or some similar legal right to enter onto a customer's property to read a utility meter or the deal with something broken on the premises that affects the larger utility system such as a short circuit that is bringing down the power of everyone on the block, without notice in cases of emergencies.

So, in this case, the issue is not the absence of a right to enter somewhere, but the fact that the utility company went to the wrong place (where it may very well have had no right to enter because there may have been no utility meter to check at that location), which in and of itself, would be mere negligence if it hadn't received such clear communication from the customer and ignored it, and secondly, whether the method it used to gain access to the property in the good faith belief that it had a legal right to enter to gain access to the property was reasonable.

Charitably, it could be that the utility company had a key allowing it to enter and read the meter at the proper address, but that key didn't work because they were at the wrong address and the utility official may have mistakenly believes that the lock was broken rather than that the address was wrong. In that case, the question would be whether it was reasonable to force entry in a non-emergency case like a meter readings, rather than trying to contact the owner to resolve the question, which it probably was not.

It isn't quite as obvious that this would be a criminal trespass, because ordinarily entry onto property under a claim of right, even if mistaken in good faith, does not constitute criminal conduct, although a claim of good faith in a context where the company as a whole knew better even if the right hand may not have known what the left hand was doing, probably doesn't hold up under agency law that imputes the knowledge of any agent of the company to the company as a whole. But, while the company may have committed a crime, the two workmen detailed to do the work may have been acting in good faith personally, and may have even had a warrant.

Certainly, the utility company should have liability to repair any damage that was done to the premises in order to gain entry that arose from its negligence in going to the wrong address and its unreasonable failure to confer with the customer about the problem in a non-emergency. SSE would probably be well advised to admit with good grace that it was in the wrong and to pay the still very modest amount that the customer claimed for an alternate rental, rather than fight this issue where its fumbling became not just rude but abusive.

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    > I doubt that an American utility company would have had the good sense and grace to act the same way. This seems completely unnecessary and extraneous
    – JasonB
    Jan 5 at 0:08
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    I was just about to say what @JasonB said. Why mar an otherwise good answer with that comment? If you've got a base for it, show it, otherwise, ...
    – davidbak
    Jan 5 at 0:09
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    @JasonB Most questions and answers here are US-centric, and many users are based in the US. It may be helpful to point out to those users, that the outcome of such a situation in the US may differ drastically from that in developed nations such as the UK.
    – user43362
    Jan 5 at 0:23
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    @user43362 Perhaps if it actually did. However, the answer offers no evidence to back up that assertion. (Also, in the U.S., utility meters normally aren't placed inside the residence in the first place and, thus, the utility company almost never needs to actually enter a residence.)
    – reirab
    Jan 5 at 12:00
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    -1 Utility companies in America have easement rights to enter property to read meters, such as water, electric, gas, etc. Those meters are not inside the property, by code, so American companies would never need the good graces to admit wrong doing such as this. Please remove the offending single sentence disparaging a country unrelated to the question OR the answer.
    – CGCampbell
    Jan 5 at 17:07
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Assuming there was no warrant, is this legal? Does it matter that the debt was not owed, or would it be the same if the homeowner really owed their energy company money?

No, it is not lawful without a valid warrant from the High Court giving them the right to force entry.

Whether the debt is owed is irrelevant to the illegal act. No valid warrant, no right to force entry.

It would be an aggravating factor against the energy company if the debt was not actually owed. This would increase the compensation due to the affected customer by the energy company when the customer inevitably complains to the energy regulator/ombudsman.

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    Even in the case there is a warrant allowing them forced entry, isn't it only possible if they are escorted by the police and the police perform the break-in? Similarly, if the tenant is at home and physically blocks their way, a police officer would normally be required to detain the tenant, wouldn't it?
    – vsz
    Jan 5 at 13:53
  • @vsz The warrant would normally be executed by a High Court Enforcement Officer (a bailiff) rather than the police. If the tenant refused access, the police would probably be called and would detain them.
    – Matthew
    Jan 6 at 9:24
  • Still, the warrant won't be executed solely by the employees of the company.
    – vsz
    Jan 6 at 12:09

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