Widener Law, Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission announce pilot program to provide legal help for low-income consumers in utility complaint process
Published: October 19, 2009
PUCPilotProgramPromoWidener University School of Law’s Harrisburg campus and the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission have announced a pilot program to help low-income consumers receive legal help in navigating the formal complaint process before the PUC.

The Public Utility Commission Project, operating within the Pennsylvania Civil Law Clinic at the Harrisburg campus, will provide free legal help to consumers living in central Pennsylvania and earning less than $2,756 a month for a family of four (150 percent of federal poverty guidelines). The 23 Widener Law students participating in the program took part in a day-long training program as well as mock hearings.

“Often complaints before the PUC deal with complex legal issues, but for the consumers these are emotional issues,” said Commission Chairman James H. Cawley. “Filing a PUC complaint can be an intimidating process for consumers who find themselves facing off against utility company attorneys. This program is a way for all consumers to have the opportunity for legal representation during the complaint process.”

"It teaches the students professional skills while performing an important public service," said Professor John L. Gedid, director of the Widener Law & Government Institute.

“The students enrolled in the Civil Law Clinic will continue to work under the supervision of our faculty to provide high quality legal services to individuals who might not otherwise be able to obtain representation,” said Associate Professor J. Palmer Lockard II, director of the clinic, which is supervising the students. “Although our students already gain significant experience in administrative law through our work in Unemployment Compensation, working with the PUC provides us an opportunity to expand our students’ knowledge of this important area of law.”

"MidPenn Legal Services is excited to play a part in this effort and we are hopeful it can benefit many people in need,” Rhodia Thomas, executive director of MidPenn Legal Services. “We will be screening applicants for financial eligibility and then connecting them with legal assistance. We have already made one referral under this project and look forward to helping with many more."

Consumers file formal complaints before the PUC when their dispute with a utility cannot be resolved. In 2008, the PUC received 2,131 formal complaints from consumers, compared to 1,931 complaints in 2007. Of those, a vast majority of consumers represented themselves.

Disputes typically include high bills, termination of service and ability to pay. Filing a formal complaint can include hearings before a PUC administrative law judge, formal arguments, cross examination as well as the filing of briefs and exceptions to the judge’s decisions. The utilities are represented by attorneys while consumers may be representing themselves.

MidPenn Legal Services is conducting the screening process to determine consumer eligibility. To apply for assistance, consumers should contact MidPenn Legal Services, 213-A North Front Street, Harrisburg PA 17101-2240 or phone at (717) 232-0581 or toll-free (800) 932-0356.

Widener University is a metropolitan university that connects curricula to social issues through civic engagement. The School of Law is fully accredited by the American Bar Association and holds membership in the Association of American Law Schools. Widener Law has two locations: the Wilmington, Del. campus, which opened in 1971, and the Harrisburg, Pa. campus, which marked its 20th anniversary this month with a Founders Day celebration on the grounds. Widener provides an all-around comprehensive legal education program, including special certificates available through its four institute programs. The Law and Government Institute is the signature program on the school’s Harrisburg campus.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission balances the needs of consumers and utilities to ensure safe and reliable utility service at reasonable rates; protect the public interest; educate consumers to make independent and informed utility choices; further economic development; and foster new technologies and competitive markets in an environmentally sound manner. For recent news releases, audio of select Commission proceedings or more information about the PUC, visit our website at www.puc.state.pa.us.