Water Services Corporation employees entering private property without permission or advance notice.

Case notes investigated by the Parliamentary Ombudsman

The complaint

AA (complainant) requested the Ombudsman to investigate an alleged invasion of his property on the part of Water Services Corporation (WSC) employees.  He alleged that when he visited his flat in Gozo, he discoverred that the water meters in the commom parts of the block of flats had been changed.  Such change entailed that the employers had to enter through the front common entrance door and, in his case, open a locked aluminium box which housed the meter.  Nobody had asked him for the key of his box,  which key was always in his possession.  There was no sign of the box being forced open and in fact he found that it was still locked but the meter inside it changed.

Complainant had objected to such intrusion but the WSC authorities never gave him satisfactory information on how the employee/s concerned accessed the meter.  He was only informed that the employees concerned said that one of the owners of the flats in the same block had opened the aluminium box which contained all the meters.  The same WSC official apologised for any inconvenience.  On his part, complainant denied that all the meters were in the same box and in any case all the owners had to be informed in advance.

The investigtion

In its reply to complainant, the WSC argued that the employees had worked in the common parts of the block where there were other residents and had accessed the meters because the common door was open as were the doors where the respective meters were enclosed.  The Corporation assured complainant that it did not have any keys which open the clients’ property.

Complainant declared that when he bought the flat in question the vendor (developer) retained the ownership of the common parts, while guaranteeing the buyer’s right of access and use of the common parts.  Complainant added that he also contributes to the maintenance of these areas in line with the Condominium Act.  Moreover and importantly, the WSC Account (for meter rental and consumption) was in his name and not in the name of the the developer, and the aluminium box enclosing the water meter was also his and had found it closed despite that the meter inside it had been changed.

The Ombudsman perused the Water Supply Regulations and particularly Regulations 43 and 44 thereof which refer to rights of entry of the Corporation’s employees into consumers’ premises including for the purpose of inspections, meter readings and to carry out any necessary works.  However, Regulation 44 provides that the Corporation must give notice (at least 4 days in advance) in writing to the consumer in respect of any related works, and indicate the estimated time when the works are intended to be carried out.  The notice period may be longer in certain situations.

Considerations

In his deliberations, the Ombudsman declared that he was not in a position to determine whether it was true that the WSC employees found both the main door of the block of flats, as well as the aluminium box enclosing the water meter, open when they arrived.  On his part complainant insisted that this was not true, arguing that even if someone had left the outside door (leading to the common parts) open, he had always left the aluminium box closed, and when he subsequently went to his flat, this box was still closed.  He had also stated that this box was his and he had the keys to it.

What was however beyond doubt, was that the Corporation had failed to inform complainant as it was in duty bound to do in terms of its regulations.  These regulations guaranteed right of entry to its employees into the consumers’ premises but if works are to be carried out, the Corporation is obliged to give them advance notice in writing.

Despite the fact that complainant did not own the common parts, he had the right of passage and access thereof, and was even obliged to contribute to their proper maintenance.  Above all, in respect of his relations with WSC, complainant was the Account holder in respect of the meter rent and water consumption at his flat, and in terms of the WSC regulations he had the right to be informed in advance and in writing.  No such notice was given.  WSC did not inform him that it was carrying out works on his water meter.

Conclusions

In the light of the above considerations, the Ombudsman concluded that even if one were to accept the WSC version that its employees found the respective doors open, the Corporation failed to observe its legal obligation to inform complainant as stipulated in Regulation 44 of the Water Supply Regulations.  The attracts criticism from the Office of the Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman expressed his hope that this failure was a one-off occurence and that it was not WSC established practice.  The Ombudsman re-iterated that the WSC is in duty bound to honour its obligations at law when it intends to carry out any works on any of its meters.

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