ADELAIDE, AAP – The Australian Energy Regulator has launched Federal Court action against electricity retailer Origin Energy over alleged systemic failures in how it deals with hardship customers.

The action cites failures in Origin’s automated processes for those people experiencing payment difficulties which the AER contends are in breach of national energy retail laws.

The AER alleges that since January 2018 the automation of a number of Origin’s processes had resulted in the company making unilateral changes to payment plans, failing to consider customers’ capacity to pay when establishing or changing payment plans, and cancelling payment plans in breach of its own hardship policies.

AER chair Clare Savage said the issue of identifying consumers in financial difficulty and offering payment plans that had regard to a customer’s capacity to pay was an AER compliance and enforcement priority.

“We are very concerned about the alleged conduct by Origin, particularly the use of automation to make changes to hardship customers’ payment plans without first seeking their agreement,” Ms Savage in a statement on Monday.

“We consider that the energy law and rules require retailers to offer individualised assistance to these vulnerable customers, not an automatically generated outcome.”

As part of its case, the AER alleges that Origin failed to comply with its own hardship policies in dealings with 18 individual customers who were experiencing financial issues.

In some cases, customers were wrongfully disconnected.

Ms Savage said Origin’s alleged conduct was first raised in complaints to various state energy ombudsmen.

The AER is seeking pecuniary penalties, declarations, injunctions, an order requiring implementation of a compliance program, a community service order, and costs against Origin Energy Electricity Limited.

In a statement, an Origin spokesperson said the company was committed to supporting its customers who were doing it tough and was disappointed some aspects of its hardship program had raised concerns.

“We are proud of the tailored assistance we provide to tens of thousands of customers every year through our Power On program,” the statement said.

“We are continually looking at ways we can improve outcomes for these customers.”