The City of Johannesburg (“COJ’s”) Credit Control and Debt Collection Bylaws provide that a consumer can lodge a query or complaint with the City and that the City must investigate same within 14 days (or as soon as is possible) and notify the consumer of the outcome of the investigation in writing.

The reason behind the law allowing for queries

The idea is to protect a consumer who genuinely disputes the correctness of all or some of the charges billed to it from disconnection or summons, until the dispute is determined. If a consumer has been incorrectly billed R 1m which he does not pay, whilst his query is being investigated and the error is being corrected, he should not be subject to termination, or legal action. But once the error is corrected and the dispute ‘resolved’, the consumer will again be subject to credit control action in the ordinary course if there are arrears on his account.

‘Investigating’ the query

The extent of the investigation will depend on the nature of the query, and might involve sending meter readers out to read the meters, or technicians to check that the meter are working properly, or checking the prior statements to see whether the charges complained of are unusually high/low or incorrect calculated (and what the cause might be). Whatever is required, it must be done by a person who is qualified/experienced to handle such queries, and who takes the time to apply his mind to the question. We have received reports of queries logged for ‘high bills’ being closed without being investigated, on the ground that the consumer did not furnish the call centre operator with more information. This is not acceptable – the call centre operators must be trained to take down the necessary information, or at least contact details, such that all queries (including those where the consumer does not know the cause of the problem) can be investigated. Anything less is a failure of justice and a contravention of the City’s statutory and constitutional obligations to the public.

‘Resolving’ the query

In the same way that investigation requires applying one’s mind, so too does resolution. If investigation reveals that the consumer’s charges are high because they are on the wrong tariff, the consumer must be moved onto the correct tariff and notified. It is insufficient to merely advise the consumer that they are being billed on the wrong tariff and do nothing to assist the consumer further.

‘Notifying’ the consumer

Merely sending the customer his next statement in the ordinary course, may be sufficient to notify him of the outcome of a query, if the account contains adjustments made pursuant to the query. But if no adjustments are made, this cannot qualify as notifying the consumer, because the consumer may think that ‘no change’ means that his query has not yet been investigated. The City needs to write and deliver a letter/email to the consumer and state what the investigation revealed and what the City is doing, if anything, to rectify the problem. Anything less does not comply with the law