PIAC’s first case focussed on electricity costs and retrospective charges.
In August 1982, the Sydney County Council and other supply councils announced a hefty increase in electricity charges.
The new charges were to apply retrospectively to the whole of the electricity used by a consumer since their last meter-reading. The councils said they had no choice because the State Government who supplied electricity to them had only given two days notice of increases in supply charges.
Arthur Austin, a retired electrician, managed to get himself before a Supreme Court judge without any legal assistance and put his complaint about the charges.
Justice Needham of the Equity Division of the Supreme Court recognised a legal issue about the councils’ power to charge retrospectively and suggested that Mr Austin obtain legal representation. PIAC took on the case and set about preparing the necessary court documents while Mr Austin succeeded in generating embarrassing media coverage for the NSW Government.
The councils blamed the Government for the steep increases and the Government said the councils were wasteful.
Finally, Premier Neville Wran announced that the Government would be deferring increases in the wholesale costs of electricity to councils and legislated to prohibit retrospective increases for electricity already consumed.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s John Slee said that the case ‘has undoubtedly brought home the dangers of taking the public for granted – especially now that PIAC exists to give legal aid to individuals who are prepared to challenge acts of doubtful legality by Government, government instrumentalities and other organisations’.
‘I knew right from the start that we would all end up paying more for electricity, and will,’ Mr Austin told the SMH.
‘But that was not the point, as far as I was concerned. The real issue was the principle involved.
‘If you had a government instrumentality getting away with retrospective charging, where would it end?’