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Consumer Rights and Harassment

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Consumers who reach their wits’ end trying to deal with faceless organisations that persistently send aggressive communications should not be cowed.

And businesses should tread carefully when pursuing consumers for any reason.

Consumer rights were bolstered in 2009 when, in a true case of David and Goliath, Mrs Ferguson succeeded in bringing a claim for harassment against British Gas.

Background to Ferguson v British Gas [2009]

After Mrs Ferguson moved to a different supplier, British Gas threatened to disconnect her supply, send in debt collectors, take her to court and have her credit rating blacklisted without justification.

Mrs Ferguson claimed that this amounted to harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

A Faceless Defence

British Gas sought to defend the claim on the basis that its computer, not the company, sent the correspondence so it should not have been taken as seriously as if it had come from an individual.

The Court of Appeal disagreed. Lord Justice Jacob said that British Gas 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 added "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 in which Ms Ferguson was".

In this case, the harassment of Mrs Ferguson was worse for the fact that it was completely unjustified; she did not owe British Gas any money.

What Constitutes Harassment?

Even where consumers owe a debt, their consumer rights are still protected and they still have a right not to be harassed.

If a creditor engages in any of the practices outlined below to try and get a debtor to pay, it may be considered harassment:

  • contacting a debtor early multiple times a day or during unsociable hours
  • using physical or verbal threats
  • pressurising a debtor to take on more debt or sell their home
  • suggesting non-payment is a criminal offence
  • using several debt collectors at one time to chase for payment
  • using paperwork or logos that falsely give the appearance of official documents
  • suggesting court action has been taken when it has not
  • implying that criminal legal action can be pursued in relation to debt

 

Consumers should not forget that they have a right to be protected from such behaviour and the consequences for debt collection agencies found to be employing these tactics can be severe. Consumers should therefore feel encouraged to exercise their rights and seek legal advice.

If you would like more information about the implications of this case for businesses or consumers please contact us on 0207 611 4848.

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