16 November 2017
“I’ve really tried to cut down on my water consumption and over the last year it‘s been very low. However, over the past 3 months my municipal water accounts suddenly more than tripled. Knowing this cannot be right I queried my accounts with the municipality. They said the consumption was correct according to my water meter and I must pay or my water would be cut off. The only explanation I have is that the water meter is not working correctly. But whose responsibility is it to verify this?”
Our courts recently had to address a similar set of facts in the case of Euphorbia (Pty) Ltd t/a Gallagher Estates v City of Johannesburg. In this case, the applicant (Gallagher Estates) was sued by the municipality for several million rand which the municipality alleged was owed to it as a result of water and sewage charges due and payable by Gallagher Estates to the municipality. Gallagher Estate’s response was that the charges that the municipality was seeking to recover were based on a faulty water meter and accordingly that these amounts were not lawfully owing.
One of the issues before the court was whether the duty of proving that the consumer was incorrectly billed lies on the consumer or whether proving that the consumer was correctly billed lies on the municipality.
In the case it was found that Gallagher Estates was legally not allowed to remove and test the meter because the legal entitlement was reserved for the municipality. Accordingly, because the applicant was not in the possession of all the information that it needed to prove that the meter was not functioning properly due to the fact that only the municipality was legally entitled to remove and test the meter, it would be unfair in law to burden the applicant with the responsibility of proving that the meter was not functioning as it would be much easier for the municipality to prove that the meter was working than for the consumer to prove that it was not.
From this case it can be deduced that in metering disputes with a municipality it is not the consumer’s responsibility to prove that the charges billed are wrong or based on a non-functioning meter. It is rather the municipality’s responsibility to first prove that the charges are correct and based on a functioning meter. If a consumer disputes the alleged consumption and lodges a query, the burden then rests on the municipality to investigate the issue, and the meter, if necessary to confirm whether the alleged amounts billed are correct.
In your case, we would advise lodging a formal query with the municipality to investigate the meter, and should the municipality not adhere to the request to through your attorney inform the municipality of their responsibility to do so as stipulated in the above case.