Judge to hear case over potential nationwide ARMS billing error

In the case, which was filed on behalf of two consumers, it was alleged that ARMS was billing consumers incorrectly by asking them to pay for their utilities on a pro rata basis calculated over a yearly period

A judge has dismissed preliminary arguments put forward by lawyers for local utilities provider ARMS Ltd in a case which may radically change the way consumers are billed.

In the case, which was filed in November 2017 by lawyer Maxilene Pace on behalf of two consumers, it was alleged that ARMS was billing consumers incorrectly by asking consumers to pay for their utilities on a pro rata basis calculated over the period of a year.

This should not happen, they said, because under legal notice 545.01, residential properties must be subject to the tariff based on cumulative annual consumption. This could be calculated on a pro rata basis according to a scale established in the law itself, but it also requires that an eventual computation be made to reflect the actual annual consumption and refunding any excess amounts paid out. No reconciliation of accounts was ever sent, they argued.

The case is being closely watched in legal circles and elsewhere due to the potential upheaval it may cause. If the electricity and water bills of every consumer in Malta were being calculated incorrectly, the ripple effect is difficult to overstate.

In its reply, ARMS contended that the court application was null, arguing that it contained several different and conflicting actions.

The First Hall of the Civil Court, presided by Madam Justice Anna Felice, ruled otherwise, however. “The applicants insist that ARMS Ltd is calculating their bills in such a way that the regulating laws were not being respected. Their aim is clear and ARMS Ltd appears to have understood them so well that the evidence they have already exhibited actively address the complaints of the applicants. Besides, the court finds nothing conflicting in the several requests of the applicants.”

ARMS had also argued that the case should not have been filed before the Civil Court as it fell within the exclusive competence of a special tribunal which dealt with billing disputes.

But the court disagreed, pointing out that the ultimate aim of the applicants was not the calculation of their bills but that the rules governing the way bills were calculated are wrong.

In her arguments to the court, Pace had emphasised that the action was “not one of judicial review of an administrative action, but one of judicial review of a legislative action.”

The court therefore rejected the preliminary pleas raised by ARMS and ordered that the case continue on the merits.

Lawyers Stefano Filletti, Paul Cachia and Aaron Mifsud Bonnici are appearing for ARMS Ltd.

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