Navigating Electricity Consumer Disputes in Nigeria: A Legal Perspective
In an age marked by nationwide electrification, the pervasive influence of electricity in our lives is undeniable. This invisible power source seamlessly permeates our daily existence, fuelling personal endeavours and driving the engines of commerce and industry. Following the privatization of Nigeria’s electricity supply industry and the retirement of NEPA (National Electric Power Authority), consumers have engaged with a new industry player: electricity distribution companies, commonly known as “DisCos.” These entities now play a pivotal role in delivering electricity to end-users nationwide. However, this interaction is not without its challenges, encompassing billing disputes, intricate back billing issues, and, at times, the ominous threat of disconnection. Contrary to the prevailing belief that DisCos wield unchecked authority, a meticulously structured consumer-oriented dispute resolution process exists under the Electricity Act, 2023 and its subsidiary regulations. This system acts as a binding framework, ensuring the fair and equitable resolution of consumer disputes while balancing operational needs.
This article examines the dispute resolution processes for electricity consumers set out under the Customer Protection Regulations 2023 (CPR 2023), a subsidiary regulation of the Electricity Act 2023, which repeals the multitude of former regulations which deal with the consumer protection framework in Nigeria’s electricity supply industry. This article aims to shed light on the pathways accessible to consumers, revealing the robust mechanisms safeguarding their rights, thereby demystifying the notion that DisCos are all-powerful and beyond accountability.
The Customer Complaints Unit (CCU): The First Port of Call
When an electricity consumer encounters an issue with their DisCo, the first port of call is the Customer Complaints Unit (CCU) of the respective DisCo. The CCU serves as the frontline for addressing consumer grievances. The CPR 2023 mandates DisCos to establish these units within their operational areas to ensure efficient complaint resolution. Consumers are provided with various dedicated communication channels, including SMS, texts, emails, and phone calls, to escalate their complaints for a swift resolution process. It is advisable for consumers to clearly articulate their complaints and provide supporting information to facilitate effective dispute resolution.
The CCU is constituted by senior DisCo staff responsible for ensuring satisfactory resolution of complaints to enhance customer service. Recognising the importance of electricity as a social amenity, the CPR 2023 obligates DisCos to resolve complaints within 15 days of receipt, with exceptions for peculiar cases. Dissatisfied consumers can escalate their disputes to the National Electric Regulatory Commission (NERC) Forum Office if they are not content with the DisCo’s resolution, but only after 30 days from the initial resolution.
The Forum Office: A Neutral Arbiter
Dissatisfied consumers can escalate disputes in writing to their nearby NERC Forum Office, strategically located within each DisCo’s operational area for ease of consumer access. The Forum Office acts as an impartial arbiter, objectively assessing complaints and issuing legally binding decisions to ensure fairness and protect consumers from potential abuse of power by DisCos. Consumers can submit complaints via email or physical letters, and the Forum Office is obligated to acknowledge receipt of the complaint within three days and evaluate the merit of the complaint within ten working days. Meritorious complaints are sent to the relevant DisCo for a response within ten to fifteen working days, and the Forum Office will convene a formal hearing if the DisCo disputes the allegations.
During these hearings, the Forum Office conducts a thorough examination of the consumer’s dispute, scrutinising evidence and arguments from both parties or their legal representatives. Following deliberation, the Forum Office issues a binding decision within a maximum of two months, mandating compliance from both parties. Dissatisfied consumers can further appeal to the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) within ten working days or even later if the consumer can show justifiable grounds for his failure to appeal within the stipulated period.
Appeals to the NERC
In cases where consumers remain unsatisfied even after the Forum Office’s intervention, they retain the right to escalate their concerns to the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), the apex regulatory body overseeing Nigeria’s electricity supply industry. These appeals, governed by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (Business Rules of the Commission) Regulations, 2006 (“NERC Business Rules”), follow a formal and legalistic process similar to a court hearing. To initiate an appeal, a consumer files a Petition supported by an affidavit detailing the facts underlying the appeal. The affected DisCo has the option to respond with a Reply or Objection within twenty-one days of receiving the Petition.
As the apex regulatory body, NERC conducts a meticulous hearing of the Petition, encompassing evidence-taking through examination-in-chief, cross-examination, and re-examination of witnesses. It also involves a thorough consideration of legal arguments presented by both parties and a rigorous evaluation of the presented facts. Following this rigorous process, NERC issues a binding decision that carries legal weight. In cases where consumers remain dissatisfied with NERC’s decision, they can further appeal the decision or apply for a rehearing of the Petition within sixty days of the original decision. Upon hearing the appeal or rehearing the Petition the NERC may either reconsider, vary or review its decision.
Recourse to a Court of Competent Jurisdiction and Alternative Dispute Resolution
In the rare instances where a consumer remains dissatisfied with the National Electricity Regulatory Commission’s (NERC) decision, they retain the option of seeking recourse in a court of competent jurisdiction. This safeguard empowers consumers to fully exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights through the judicial system, ensuring their grievances are thoroughly ventilated. The judicial process involves a meticulous review of case facts and presented evidence, guided by established legal principles and precedents, ultimately culminating in a judgment.
Although considered a last resort, the right to court recourse underscores the paramount role of the rule of law in resolving electricity consumer disputes. Additionally, for consumers who prefer alternatives to litigation, there are other dispute resolution forums available, such as negotiation, mediation, conciliation, or arbitration, providing flexibility in addressing disputes when the circumstances warrant.
Initiating a lawsuit against DisCos before exhausting the dispute resolution processes under the Electricity Act, 2023 and CPR 2023 is not recommended, as it may lead to the lawsuit being dismissed for non-compliance with statutory pre-action requirements. In Comag Steel and Construction Company Limited v. Enugu Electricity Distribution Company Plc (C.A.) E.L.R. 3. 2021, the Court of Appeal held that by virtue of the express provisions of section 3(5) and (9) of the NERC Customer Complaints Handling Standards Procedures, an aggrieved customer must first exhaust the internal mechanism before approaching the Court and the said provision does not oust the jurisdiction of the Court. Notwithstanding the position in Comag Steel’s case, it is recommended that when a lawsuit is filed to obtain an interim injunction against a DisCo, the lawsuit be discontinued once the Forum Office schedules a hearing for the consumer’s complaint, as the Forum Office typically declines to address a complaint that is the subject of an ongoing court lawsuit.
Navigating Situations of Critical or Extreme Urgency: The Role of Interim Reliefs
In their dealings with DisCos, consumers may encounter situations of extreme urgency, including the threat of sudden electricity disconnection, which is especially detrimental to power-dependent businesses. To address these critical scenarios, consumers have access to a potent legal tool in the form of an interim injunction. This relief compels all parties to maintain the status quo while following dispute resolution procedures under the Electricity Act and CPR 2023. Securing an interim injunction allows consumers to prevent adverse actions by DisCos while addressing their grievances through the proper channels.
Consumers facing urgent situations have two options for protecting their interests. Firstly, they can file a Motion Ex-Parte with an Affidavit of Urgency in a competent court to swiftly obtain an interim injunction against a DisCo to prevent potential harm. Also, under the CPR 2023, consumers can directly lodge a complaint with the Forum Office to secure an interim order before formal proceedings commence before the Forum. This provision emphasises the importance of promptly safeguarding consumers’ rights when faced with time-sensitive issues.
Through a thorough examination of the dispute resolution process within the Nigerian electricity supply industry, this article underscores the presence of a robust framework established under the Electricity Act, 2023 and its subsidiary regulations. This framework stands ready to protect electricity consumers, hold DisCos accountable and maintain operational equilibrium in the industry. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that consumers assert their rights and seek equitable and fair resolutions when disputes arise. Such collective assertion fosters industry transparency, upholds the rule of law, and ensures DisCos operate within their statutory boundaries. In embracing their roles as guardians of this system, consumers contribute to a harmonious coexistence within Nigeria’s electrified landscape.
This article provides general information only and does not constitute specific legal or procedural advice. For enquiries, please reach out to the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.