To put people in the picture, one day in August, 2013, I was at a check out with my son, with a mountain of shopping and a line of people behind me. The cashier told me that my card wasn’t working. I was very surprised by this because I knew that we had money in our bank account. After a couple of tries, I phoned my bank, at which point I was told that there was a garnishee order on my bank account. What is a garnishee order, I asked?
In a nutshell, our ex landlord had frozen our bank account as a precautionary measure. Why? Because we had found out that we were on the incorrect utility tariff and that we had already overpaid by 1 400 euro. So, therefore, we refused to pay the arrears on the account of about 1 600 euro. That would have made our overpayment equal to about 3 000 euro over a 35 month period.
More was to come. My employer emailed me a few days later to tell me that my salary had also been garnisheed.
I felt humiliated and broken. I felt like I was a criminal. I felt that the whole world thought that I was a criminal.
Malta has an insane utility billing system where a tenant cannot have a direct relationship with Arms, (the sole, state owned utility billing company) WITHOUT the permission of the landlord. This has created a loophole, where landlords, in effect, act like pimps for Arms: they, knowingly or unknowingly, cause the tenant to be billed at the extortionate, domestic tariff, which is the tariff designed for EMPTY or occasionally used second homes; hence number of registered tenants = zero.
Arms is in receipt of money that it should not be in receipt of, and has been since 2009, ever since this billing system was introduced. Everybody living in their primary residence should be on the more favourable residential tariff. This behaviour of Arms is unconstitutional, and also breaks EU law in that it directly discriminates against all tenants, and indirectly discriminates against non Maltese EU nationals, who are even more unlikely to know about this insane billing system than Maltese nationals.
That day in August, 2013 was a momentous day. That was the day when the bottom of my world fell out. When I finally understood that being an assertive, law abiding, hardworking net contributor to society counts for nothing in Malta. When I understood that the combined forces of law and government could actually come together to punish somebody whose only “crime” was to justifiably dispute an unfair bill. What’s more, a bill which was not even in my name. I was in shock, and I am still in shock, that something like this happened, and that there was nowhere for me to go to stop this outrageous behaviour.
How I tried. I wrote to ex Arms CEO James Davis and cc’d Konrad Mizzi, the Minister for Energy and Health, and Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. I wrote to the National Audit Office, to the Office of the Ombudsman…
But no. All I got was legalistic nonsense. Legalistic nonsense that even a Franz Kafka couldn’t possibly have come up with. I was told that the ‘consumer’ in the Electricity and Water Supply Regulations was the landlord, even if it was the tenant doing the consuming. I was told that it doesn’t matter if the consumption on the account belied the “No. of residents = zero” description. I was told that it didn’t matter if I had a paper trail showing that we had lived in that so called empty property for 35 months. I was told that Arms does not do refunds. I was told that it was totally my fault for not knowing or imagining that such an imaginative billing system existed.
In effect, I was blamed for not being psychic; for not having paranormal abilities. I was effectively told that my family of 5 lived invisibly in my ex landlord’s empty second home because my ex landlord hadn’t given us permission to be made visible to Arms. I was told that ‘tenants do not exist for Arms.’
After 48 years of learning about myself, I know that I am an enterprising and resilient person. However, all this has had a profound effect on me. I feel irretrievably changed.
The hardest thing has been the effect it has had on my family. I have tried, I really have, to try and keep things normal. But I can see that I have not been as successful as I would have liked.
Moving countries is an expensive business. So, all this happened when our financial situation was not as great as it could have been. It caused huge stress and worry. The property that we were supposed to move into fell through so there were a good few weeks where we were practically homeless. In 2013, the usually enjoyable build up to Christmas was traumatic: we had to buy presents for our children on Christmas Eve. My then eight year old son had to take 80 euro in cash to school on the first day of term because we had no cheque book facility. We had to cancel a trip to Gozo to celebrate my husband’s birthday in September.
But more than the money, which was bad enough, was the sense of injustice, the sense of betrayal and the total indifference to the injustice of our situation by many who, I felt, should have taken responsibility.
Worst of all, I suspect that the behaviour difficulties of my children at school were caused by all this uncertainty and their sensing of my unhappiness, much as I tried to hide it.
Enough with the doom and gloom. Lately, I have been feeling more upbeat, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Who knows? All of this may give me more confidence in my ability to change a problem to a solution. Because, notwithstanding my low periods, I have felt a steely determination that I WILL have justice for myself and for all tenants living in Malta.
I have felt totally let down by the Maltese political class but I am determined that it will be held to account, if not by Maltese institutions, then by the EU.
So what does the judgement say?
Basically the judgement ruled that my ex landlord and I had to share the 1 600 euro overcharge. This is good news.
Maybe it will make landlords understand that as much as “Ignorance is no excuse” applies to tenants, it also applies to landlords. Maybe landlords will do some proper research into their letting business and make sure that they do everything possible to put their tenants on the correct tariff. Maybe it will teach landlords not to take out precautionary garnishee orders on their tenants’ bank accounts and salaries.
Because maybe more and more tenants will not cave in and just pay up, when they see that a court of law has ruled that the overcharge is to be shared between landlord and tenant.
But you know what? The above is not enough for me. Yes, it’s a step, and a step in the right direction. However, at the end of the day, Arms will still be in receipt of 3 000 euro or so more than it should be from me and from my ex landlord.
Yes, it will not be us that will have paid all of the overcharge and I suppose that is my reward for persevering when it would have been far, far easier to cave in.
I would suggest that you watch this space. My petition to the EU, submitted nearly two years ago, was kept open by the EU Committee of Petitions on the 14th July, 2015 because the EU Commission is not satisfied with the response of the Maltese government.
So, the saga continues…
Onwards and upwards.
PS This is the link to the video streaming of the Committee of Petitions on the 14th July, 2015. My petition, 1737/2013, is discussed at around 2:36 and ends at around 2:48.