TIO seeks anonymity for customer complaints

Complaint numbers should suffice, ombudsman claims in opening remarks for Exetel lawsuit

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) sought this week to keep the identities of those who complained against Exetel confidential, as part of a burgeoning law suit between the parties.

The internet service provider (ISP) served legal papers to the ombudsman in October this year, following negotiations with the TIO for much of 2010. The ISP is seeking damages for losses incurred as a result of the TIO’s alleged breaches of the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act, including the overcharging of volume-related costs and operating costs, and also legal costs.

The TIO can enforce undertakings and issue fines against a telco if a complaint is upheld. Exetel is seeking a refund on all amounts that have allegedly been wrongly charged by the TIO, according to chief executive, John Linton.

In a letter to customers last month, Linton called the legal proceedings “pointless but necessary” against what he alleged was a “rogue organisation” that had failed to take into account the provider’s own concerns or responses to complaints.

As the legal proceedings began this week, legal counsel for TIO urged presiding judge, Justice Robert John Buchanan, place an interim confidentiality notice under section 50 of the Federal Court Act, with lead barrister, Mitchel More, claiming the 100 or so relevant cases required anonymity.

She said individual complainants’ identities were not relevant to the proceedings other than through the complaint identifier used internally by the TIO.

However, Justice Buchanan said the lack of a formal application for a confidentiality order and relevant evidence failed to convince him of the need for anonymity.

“Unless it’s suggested that the applicant is in breach of some legal obligation not to disclose the names to which I should give effect in this court, the problem will be to bring the circumstances to which you referred me within the operation of section 50,” he said.

Though legal counsel for Exetel had served its statement of claim and document of particulars to the TIO in November, More said the ombudsman required at least an extra week to gather appropriate evidence for a case of defence.

The parties are expected to continue their case in early May next year.