Tenant: Just received the first bill in 11 months from the landlord. It’s over €5,000. How can this be possible? And that doesn’t include the contracted €50 I have been paying every month.

Adviser: I suspect you are on the domestic rate. Did you ask your landlord to endorse form H when you moved in? Did you rent through an agent?

Tenant: I asked but she said that, since it was her name on the bills and she is Maltese I didn’t have to worry. The agent said it was between me and the landlord and that they couldn’t insist on a rate.

Let’s get some facts down.

The ‘domestic’ rate for utilities is linked/applied solely to secondary properties, like summer homes and rarely used properties (‘N/B rarely used properties’).

The ‘domestic’ rate is not and should not be used in properties where someone lives year in and year out, with residential consumption.

Just because a Maltese national’s name appears on the bill does not automatically imply the residential rate will apply. At present, one would have to apply for such a rate via ARMS Ltd using form H. This is not a change in the name on the bills but simply a registration of the tenants residing in the property. There is no charge connected to it.

A tenant on the domestic rate, not registered at a property, does not exist in the eyes of ARMS Ltd

Unlike residential bills, which come every two to three months, the domestic-rated property bills are sent far less frequently, in some instances once a year. On a property rarely used, that could be found acceptable. In situations such as these, the landlord presents the tenant with a handwritten bill, normally done via the ARMS Ltd calculator once a month.

Tenant: Should tenants be obliged to pay these amounts?

Adviser: Would we pay any other bill without an actual bill?

Adviser: How many times would we pay a bill that didn’t have our name on it?

It usually takes tenants a few months to realise that the utility rate on their property is excessive and that’s when the deerstalker and magnifying glass come out and they eventually find the ‘F law’. They are indeed, in some instances paying almost double. The heels dig in, animosity between tenant and landlord ensue, and the refusal of the tenant to pay starts the journey into the black hole.

There is very little help for those free falling into the darkness. They are living in their primary residence, absolutely 100 per cent entitled, as decreed by ARMS Ltd, to the residential rate, yet paying the rate for a second home.

The darkness continues as they, the tenants, seek legal advice and find out that most experts do not have a clue about the situation.

What do you mean you are paying more (€50 per half hour)?

It is much easier to give legal advice to the landlord on ‘unpaid bills’; no explanation is needed.

If the situation was not bad enough, it is about to get a whole lot worse. The alarm bills start ringing when you decide to pay another bill via online banking and experience your worst nightmare. A hack? Fraudulent behaviour? Credit card stolen?

You check another account. You call the bank to be told your accounts have been ‘garnished’. Darth Vader has struck!

As much as the rules surrounding garnishee orders require only the amount garnished to be held, and that the person being garnished be left with enough to live on, that is hardly important in most of these situations. A signature on a garnishee order is just so much easier and cost effective and they do not need to know anything else, or want to.

Evidence? What evidence?

The law in respect of garnishee orders is rarely adhered to – too much like hard work – so the tenant finds bank accounts frozen with no immediate recourse. I say no immediate recourse because the tenant has to first find an expert willing to investigate and understand the problem. Most will blame ARMS Ltd and tell you to take it up with them but, being a tenant on the domestic rate, not registered at a property, you do not-exist in the eyes of ARMS Ltd.

Very few will blame the landlord who, on deciding to rent a property, did not look any further than the cash. (Most do not accept bank transfers etc.) They do not realise that it is their responsibility to inform the tenants about the utility rates and also that if they are renting their property as a residential concern the tenant must be placed on the residential rate.

Very few will blame the agents and the agencies, who do know of this situation, but informing tenants of the domestic rate versus the residential rate “is not within their remit”.

Very few will blame the management companies because they do not want to bother their owners with an extra cost to the tune of 50 per cent and would rather sit behind a desk accepting ‘cash payments only’. We could all blame AG-entleman but that would just be a waste of breath.

No, they will all blame the tenant for not being aware (like they are) of the many corrupt, discriminatory, criminal and illegal connotations of renting a property in Malta, namely the domestic versus residential ‘loophole’.

Meanwhile, back at base camp ARMS Ltd, Enemalta have their own black hole of debt but how much of that is accurate? How much of the money owed to these companiesis legitimate billing? How much of that alleged debt is made up of tenants who absolutely point-blank refuse to be ripped off any longer?

Let’s face it, ARMS Ltd know about this injustice. In fact, you could say that they encourage it but I do not see anyone hitting them with a garnishee order.

armsclassaction@gmail.com

Patricia Graham is representative of the EU nationals advisory group Up in Arms.