The telecoms regulator claims that Eircom has been overcharging around 71,000 of its customers by around €4.7 million over the past few years.
The Commercial Court heard that Comreg sued Eircom Ltd, which trades under the Eir name, under a legal mechanism that allows it to apply to the court for an end to the overcharging in circumstances in which the practice is alleged to have been in progress and where there is a provision for a fine of €11.5 million or an amount of determined by the court.
Aircom denies the allegations and says that while there have been incorrect invoices, they are not at the scale that Comreg claims.
The case was admitted to the Fast Track Commercial Court on Monday at the request of Eileen Barrington SC, in favor of Comreg. Ms Barrington said there is a mechanism in law under which Comreg can enforce an end to overcharging that has been going on since 2015 on the back of four sets of overcharge convictions since 2015.
Jonathan Newman SC, on behalf of Aircom, said he agreed to accept the case on the commercial list due to concerns about the conduct of the proceedings.
However, he also said, the claims are fully disputed, and while they are being accepted, there are incorrect billing, they are not on the purported scale and there is also an issue about whether Comreg has applied fair procedures.
Judge Dennis MacDonald was satisfied to accept the case on the List in circumstances including a significant level of alleged overcharging and also consideration of the public interest in the proceedings as well as the impact on Eircom in the marketplace and its competitors.
He delayed setting up guidance for a week on how the case would proceed.
Comreg requires orders under the Telecommunications Regulatory Act of 2002 that Eircom stop violations of the law, including in charging customers more than the fees stipulated in their contracts. It also seeks to refrain from charging customers a fee when they request discontinuation of their service and to refrain from charging an « early termination » fee.
Miriam Killrin, Comreg’s director of compliance operations, said in an affidavit that Comreg has conducted a number of investigations over the past six years into repeated and repeated overcharging of Eircom.
Comreg believes that overcharging for Eircom customers is « pervasive and persistent and affects a very large number of customers per month. »
It said the regulator had seen no evidence of any meaningful treatment by Aircom, and had made no meaningful effort to proactively identify and address errors in its billing systems that were causing fee increases.
Comreg believes it is necessary to seek orders to bring Eircom to comply with the company’s obligations under law not to overprice in circumstances where efforts by regulators to encourage compliance have had no measurable or lasting effect, it said.
Eircom has been found guilty of 30 overcharging offenses in recent years with fines totaling €67,500.
Subsequently, Komrig conducted two additional investigations. Eircom, which committed to developing remedial plans after her conviction, including appointing a new customer advocacy chief and publishing a code of practice, expressed its concerns on grounds including the reasonableness and proportionality of the first investigation, allegations that Comreg disputed.
When the second investigation began, Aircom confirmed that it was identical to the first. Ms Killrin said she had also sought to justify the increase in customer complaints as being driven by the Covid-19 pandemic which he said had affected all operators.
Last April, Komrig wrote to Aircom outlining his findings from these two investigations. Among those findings, Eircom’s billing systems and processes have been unable to proactively identify cases of overcharging and that Eircom’s approach to this is almost entirely done.
Available information shows that the excess amount in the period of the two investigations was at least 4.7 million euros, affecting about 71,000 Eircom customer accounts, she said.
When Comreg notified Eircom of its intent to seek court orders, Eircom’s attorneys responded that there had been undue delay in doing so, a lack of fair or coherent proceedings, and that it was advancing on conjectural and factually incorrect violations, and that there had been a failure to admit its importance. Improvements in customer service, among other things.
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