Prohibit Disconnecting Electricity for Impoverished Debtors
Along with the Union of Social Workers, Physicians for Human Rights and ACRI, four people who had been disconnected from their electricity due to debt petitioned to the High Court of Justice on 22.7.2019. The petitioners are demanding the court direct the state to prohibit disconnecting people from their electricity due to monetary debt. Disconnection due to debt should occur only on condition of holding a hearing, in which the person and their household’s financial, health, and circumstantial situation can be assessed.
Every year, electricity providers turn off electricity for tens of thousands of Israeli households due to debts owed to the Israel Electric Corporation. In 2010, 84,500 homes were disconnected; in 2011 and 2012 there were 70,000 people disconnected each year; in 2013 around 67,000; in 2014, 42,300; in 2015, 57,882 consumers were disconnected; and in 2016, 45,486 households were disconnected from electricity while another 30,556 households were forced to switch to prepaid meter services. Electricity is provided through these services only once the meter is filled and the amount of money put into the meter is used to offset a portion of the person’s debt.
In the petition, submitted by Adv. Adi Nir-Binyamini from Tel Aviv University’s Clinic for Human Rights and Adv. Maskit Bendel from ACRI, the attorneys explained that in today’s age, it is impossible to lead a normal life without electric appliances. Therefore, today, the right to electricity is a substantive part of the basic right to live in dignity, the right to health, and even the right to life itself. Without electricity, you cannot warm or cool your house, preserve food or medicine in the refrigerator, use medical appliances that require electricity, heat up water, charge health-related devices such as electric wheelchairs; charge mobile phones or connect to the internet, and more. Lacking electricity especially harms people with medical issues and vulnerable populations, including the ill, the elderly, children and babies.
For families living in financial straits, maintaining the Electric Corporation payments can be a living nightmare. The most drastic measure the company has for collecting debt is cutting off electricity, and this harsh tool has become routine. It is used even for consumers who do not have the means to pay the bill and for clients, who, given their medical situations, need to be continuously connected to electricity. Even those consumers who, due to their financial and physical states, are eligible for a discount on electricity, are not protected from being disconnected.
For example, take "S," one of the petitioners. "S" is a single mother of five children, one of whom was born with Down’s syndrome and has developmental disabilities. "S" needs to use a prepaid meter for electricity. Each time she charges the meter, the Electric Corporation takes 20% of the amount paid in order to pay off a debt she owes, including interest. Therefore, if "S" puts 150 NIS on the meter, she has only 82 NIS worth of electricity to actually use. "S" needs to request help from non-profit organizations in order to fill her meter, and to ensure that her electricity will not be disconnected, securing electricity for the medical care that her disabled son needs.
"G," another petitioner, is an elderly man who suffers from diabetes and sleep apnea syndrome. To sleep, he needs an air compression machine. He also uses medication, such as insulin, that requires refrigeration. "G" is recognized as 100% disabled by the State, however, his electricity has been cut off a number of times in the past. He is assisted by donations and lives at times without electricity. The last time his electricity was disconnected, he needed to throw away his insulin and buy replacements, despite his financial hardship.
The petitioners claim that electricity should be treated as every other resource and that when a consumer falls into debt, especially if that consumer is poor, the debt should be collected as all other debts are collected. They petitioners state that the Israeli Electric Corporation should be prohibited from turning off the switch as an aggressive means for payment collection.
The petition states: “Electricity is unique. It is a product that has public components and connection to electricity is recognized as a basic right. Therefore, the State is required to ensure that each consumer who cannot pay their debts will be subject to more moderate and proportional methods of debt collection that do not include the extreme sanction of disconnection. So long as the consumer does not have enough electricity to live with dignity, he or she should not be disconnected from electricity.”
On December 14, 2020, the first High Court hearing on the petition took place, during which Chief Justice Esther Hayut claimed the Electricity Company was using a "statistical trick" in assuming that consumers who, according to the Ministry of Health, should not be disconnected from the electricity supply no matter what, will not pay if it is illegal to disconnect them.
The Court issued an order nisi requiring the Electricity Company to explain their procedure and its refusal to heed Ministry of Health guidelines regarding populations in need of electricity at all times. The Electricity Company response is pending.
For further information (Hebrew)