Israel's High Court Rules Consumers Can’t Have Their Electricity Cut Without a Hearing

The court based its ruling on a finding that depriving someone of electricity harms their minimum right to a dignified existence

Inside a Jerusalem apartment that is part of a program allowing residents to pay for their electricity in advance.
Inside a Jerusalem apartment that is part of a program allowing residents to pay for their electricity in advance.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled on Thursday that the country’s Electricity Authority must enable consumers threatened with having their power cut off for non-payment to show they are suffering financial or health problems that justify their continued access to electric power.

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Although consumers have no absolute right to free electric power, “electricity is a basic necessity the deprivation of which does harm to the right to minimal existence with dignity, a right derived from the constitutional right to dignity,” the court ruled. The court said the Electricity Authority must conduct a hearing prior to cutting a customer’s power.

It gave the government power authority six months to revise its procedures and ordered it to pay the petitioners who filed the case 40,000 shekels ($12,800) in expenses, to be divided among them.

The ruling came in response to a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights and the Israel Union of Social Workers against the Electricity Authority, the Israel Electric Corp. and Energy Minster Karine Elharrar. It was filed on behalf of several poor families whose electricity had been cut off due to payment arrears.

The organizations asked the court to expand the list of populations that are protected from having their power cut off due to arrears and that people be given the right to a hearing prior before losing their power. The petitioners also asked that the government be ordered to stop offsetting the prior debts of participants in a program permitting consumers to pay for a set amount of electricity up front. These consumers were having their arrears covered rather than having payments directed towards their ongoing electrical bills.

During the time that the case was pending, the categories of people protected from being cut off for non-payment was expanded to include a larger number in ill health, but it was not expanded in any other category. But the panel of three justices – Isaac Amit, Daphne Barak-Erez and David Mintz – ruled that the scope of the protected group, which includes Holocaust survivors and what is defined as “consumers for whom electricity supply is essential” for health reasons, was still insufficient.

They ruled that in instances in which the debtors can prove that they are suffering extreme poverty or are facing financial difficulties combined with poor health, the IEC must limit its collection efforts to measured steps that do not include shutting off their power.

Justice Barak-Erez stated in the ruling that it was unreasonable for there to be no way to avoid having electricity cut off “even in a case of extreme financial difficulty, for example, in a household of meager means with young babies, perhaps also those with one or another kind of medical need” or instances in which there is evidence in the administrative process that the members of the household have no real way of raising the funds to pay arrears.

In addition, she rejected the argument that “requiring a need to exercise judgment would necessarily bring about a huge expansion of the list of consumers who might be protected from having the electricity cut off.”

The Electricity Authority and the others against who had been sued claimed that no evidence had been presented that there was a substantial number of consumers in Israel who were in dire poverty, “even more so when consideration focuses on those suffering from a combination of difficulties stemming from poverty and a medical necessity to be connected to electricity.”

For his part, Justice Amit said the IEC and municipal social welfare departments needed to cooperate in dealing with the issue. “The petition before us has raised a painful subject that gets down to fundamental questions relating to the country’s welfare policy and [the compassion] of its residents and of policy makers. It’s taken for granted that the petitioners and the officials involved will continue to monitor what is happening in this area,” he wrote.

After the court delivered its ruling, the lawyers for the petitioners, Maskit Bendel of the ACRI and Adi Nir Binyamini of the human rights legal clinic at Tel Aviv University, issued a statement saying that the court had accepted their position that electricity is a constitutional right closely related to the right to a dignified existence.

“We hope that the ruling, which opened with the words ‘and let there be light,’ heralds the beginning of a new era when it comes to protecting weak populations from having their electricity cut off,” they said in a statement.

The Justice Ministry’s legal aid division, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said the ruling “will assist consumers who are in serious distress, who have been harmed by having their electricity cut off or have had to forgo medicine or basic necessities so they wouldn’t be left in the dark and without other basic needs.”

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar said her ministry would implement the ruling and promised “to continue to work to advance access to energy to every level of the population.”

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