Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

How British Gas Ended Up in Court for Being Too Heavy-Handed with Customers

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

How British Gas Ended Up in Court for Being Too Heavy-Handed with Customers

Article excerpt

Byline: JOSHUA ROZENBERG LEGAL ANALYSIS

IF BUSINESSES find themselves sued and even facing criminal charges for harassing their customers in the coming months, they will know which company to blame. British Gas has quietly settled the claim by a former customer that brought it so much bad publicity this month.

But the settlement -- which neither side would discuss -- came too late to stop two senior appeal judges calling on local trading standards officers to bring criminal proceedings against companies that treat their customers in the way alleged by Lisa Ferguson, 47, from Bromley.

"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," Lord Justice Jacob said in the Court of Appeal.

Although Ferguson had changed from British Gas to another supplier in May 2006, she received bill after bill, threatening letter after threatening letter, over the following eight months.

Ferguson, a self-employed property investor, accused British Gas of pursuing a course of conduct that amounted to harassment of her -- and which the company should have known was harassment.

This is a criminal offence under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Victims may also claim damages in the civil courts for anxiety and financial loss, as she did.

The 1997 Act was designed to deal with the problem of stalking, especially by strangers. But whoever drafted it must have been unfamiliar with the law of unintended consequences. In 2006, the Law Lords confirmed the Act could be used by employees bullied at work, although the Court of Appeal restricted its use in bullying cases a year later.

Martin Porter QC, for British Gas, may have hoped to stop the 1997 Act spreading still further -- this time to the suppliercustomer relationship. If that was why his clients tried to have Ferguson's claim struck out ahead of a full hearing, their tactics backfired.

"I accept that a course of conduct must be grave before the offence or tort of harassment is proved," said Lord Justice Jacob this month. But it was "strongly arguable", at the very least, that Ferguson's allegations, if proved, would satisfy that test. …

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