The Commonwealth Treasury is currently conducting a consultation about the issue of fees for paper bills and options to reduce consumer detriment.
In our submission, Caxton Legal Centre strongly supports a prohibition on paper billing fees as we consider that the issue has particular ramifications for Caxton’s clients.
Caxton is concerned about the impact on the following groups of people in particular:
1. People on limited or no incomes living in insecure housing
Disadvantaged clients do not seem to be clients for whom a switch to digital communication by the various billing companies offers a real solution in terms of provision of information, including bills. While such clients may, at times, have difficulty ensuring they receive paper bills, digital communications are not necessarily better. If clients miss out on receiving a paper bill and need to request a new copy, forcing them to pay fees for such bills simply adds to their difficulties.
In our view, forcing our clients to receive electronic bills and/or forcing them to pay for paper bills simply exacerbates the social exclusion already experienced by these clients when they are dealing with service providers and other businesses.
2. People on limited incomes with dysfunctional coping and organisational skills
When clients have had limited education, have cognitive impairment of some sort or mental health problems, and limited social support, the question of them being able to manage their personal affairs effectively can prove very difficult.
Clients with these types of problems unfortunately often end up being victims of suspect consumer transactions, while others experience financial difficulties or other problems involving banks, insurers, utility providers and government departments/bodies such as SPER. Clients with these types of problems often seek assistance via support services and other organisations such as Caxton.
As our clients often struggle to articulate their difficulties in a coherent and chronological fashion, we find that having access to our clients’ hard copy documents is vital if we are to be able to help them.
For older clients, even if they are able to access information on a smart phone, their vision issues can make it very difficult for them to read documents on a smart phone, and large-print, hard-copy documents are much easier to follow.
We are concerned that the move to digital billing practices will make it more difficult for our vulnerable clients to understand their affairs and/or seek guidance about legal difficulties relating to their affairs. Moreover, if clients have to pay to receive paper records, this might simply be the one extra level of complexity that stops/delays a client from seeking legal advice or assistance. We have found that early intervention attempting to resolve client problems is always preferable and improves outcomes. Negotiated outcomes, where clients have the assistance of an advocate of some sort (e.g. a community worker, a social worker or a lawyer), are almost always preferable to litigation.
3. Clients of limited means with literacy and language problems
A reasonable proportion of our clients are clients from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds. We therefore regularly use the Telephone Interpreting Service (TIS) to help interview and advise our clients. As many clients who have English as a second language are unable to explain their issues to us clearly, we normally also need to carefully peruse all their documents in order to ascertain the facts of their cases. Being able to readily access paper documents (to then provide to an advisor or advocate) usually makes it much easier for CALD clients to obtain assistance. Trying to peruse any sort of complex document on a small smart phone interface is not ideal for such clients. We consider that our vulnerable CALD clients should be able to obtain paper bills at no cost.
4. Older clients with limited or no ability to use technology
Older clients have a much lower use of the internet. Anecdotally, we understand from our older clients that many have found that learning to use new technologies is beyond their capabilities. Accordingly, many older clients rely on their younger relatives to assist them with anything involving new technologies, such as dealing with emails or making online payments or purchases. We expect that there will be increasing situations where, as local banks close and customers have difficulties accessing face-to-face banking facilities, they will rely even more heavily on relatives to assist them to do on-line banking, trusting that their relatives will be carrying out their wishes properly. When a client receives a paper copy banking statement, they are able to easily see if there are any unexpected transactions occurring on their bank accounts.
We consider that our older clients need to be able to readily access paper copies regarding their bills and accounts.
We have grave concerns that the current push by the commercial sector to make customers engage with businesses digitally and to receive bills digitally will provide many new opportunities for perpetrators of elder abuse to exploit vulnerable adults.
Caxton Legal Centre is committed to serving and protecting clients to the greatest extent reasonably possible and we believe that the outcome of this review should be determined by sound public policy.
Given the arguments raised in our discussions about our client’s experiences and the possibility for increased elder abuse as a shift away from paper billing, we support a prohibition on paper billing fees.