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UK incumbent BT insists it is not on the hook for compensation payments, as the £1.3 billion class action claim against it heads to trial.
January 29, 2024
Led by consumer champion Justin Le Patourel and dubbed the Collective Action on Land Lines (CALL), the claim relates to historic instances – first uncovered in 2017 by regulator Ofcom – of BT overcharging standalone fixed-line phone customers.
The investigation found that BT had been increasing prices for these so-called 'legacy customers', even though it was getting progressively cheaper to serve them. BT subsequently agreed to lower its fees, but in 2021, Le Patourel launched CALL on grounds that it owed compensation to affected customers – many of whom are on the older, vulnerable side – for its earlier misdeeds.
Le Patourel has extended his class action to include customers who signed up to broadband as well as landline phone under separate contracts. They were found to have paid more than customers who took out both services under a bundled contract, and are in his opinion also entitled to compensation.
These two groups are made up of more than 1.5 million and 2 million customers respectively, and the action seeks recompense of between £300 and £400 – or potentially even more – per customer.
"We believe BT has been systematically overcharging millions of customers over many years, and those customers could be owed hundreds of pounds each," said Le Patourel.
Le Patourel filed his case at the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT), which – following an unsuccessful appeal from BT – finally set a date of 29 January for the trial.
"Time really is of the essence," said Le Patourel. "More than 40 percent of our claimants are aged over 70, and over 150 of them are dying every day. It really is vital that BT should refund every one of them as soon as possible."
Indeed, more than 500,000 claimants have already passed away, according to CALL. Estates of the deceased will be able to apply for compensation, if the case is successful.
In legal documents seen by Telecoms.com, his lawyers have claimed that BT was aware of legacy customers' longstanding loyalty to it as a safe pair of hands – what with it being the former monopoly telecoms provider – and therefore it deliberately overcharged them in order to extract as much value from them as it could.
BT has always disputed Le Patourel's claims, promising in 2021 to defend itself against any allegation that it has ripped off customers, particularly older, vulnerable ones. It also took issue with the class action proceeding on an opt-out basis – where claimants are automatically enrolled in the action – rather than opt in.
Fast forward to today, and BT's position is unchanged.
"We take our responsibilities to customers very seriously and are dedicated to keeping our customers connected, while helping those who need it most," said a BT spokesperson. "This claim relates to a technical landline pricing issue which was resolved by Ofcom in 2017. We do not accept that our pricing was anti-competitive back then, and as such are committed to robustly defending our position at trial."
According to the CAT's Website, the trial could last until mid-March. Depending on the outcome, appeals might also be in the offing, so don't expect a definitive ruling on this any time soon.
Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.
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