Elderly woman died after falling from ladder while trying to top up electricity meter at council house

Bernadette Faulkner was found by her neighbours hours after her fall (Getty Images)
Bernadette Faulkner was found by her neighbours hours after her fall (Getty Images)

An 80-year-old woman died after falling from a ladder at her London council flat while trying to top up an electricity meter that was around 8ft from the ground.

Bernadette Faulkner, who was 4ft 10ins tall, was forced to use a stepladder to reach the prepayment meter at her Bloomsbury home.

Following an inquest into her death, coroner Ian Potter has issued a rare 'prevention of future deaths report', criticising the placement of the meter and others like it.

Mrs Faulkner's flat was one of four in a converted Victorian townhouse in Orde Hall Street, central London. The mother and YMCA volunteer rented the property from Camden Borough Council.

"On December 2, 2022, Mrs Faulkner purchased credit for her electricity meter and then climbed the stepladder to put the credit onto the meter," wrote the coroner in his report.

"In trying to access the meter she fell from the ladder and landed on the floor, where she was discovered some hours later by neighbours."

Inquest documents shows that after initially declining an ambulance, for two days Mrs Faulkner "spent many hours on her bathroom floor unable to reach a telephone".

 (Google Maps)
(Google Maps)

She managed to call for an ambulance around 6pm on December 4, and was taken to hospital.

She tragically died of her injuries four days later, on December 8.

Mrs Faulkner's electricity meter was "seven to eight feet" from the floor, in a cupboard just inside the communal entrance to the flats, said Mr Potter, adding she "would be unable" to reach it without steps.

"Mrs Faulkner was only 4ft 10ins tall, and had no choice but to access the meter using a stepladder every time she wished to add credit to her pre-payment meter," wrote Mr Potter in his report.

He added that "anyone coming through the [front] door would be entirely unable to see anyone using a stepladder behind the door".

While all kinds of electricity meters need to be accessible, fitting prepayment meters at such a height is especially risky because users must access them each time they top up, he wrote.

He added that it is "not uncommon" to find electricity meters installed so high up they must be accessed using steps.

"There appears to be no industry standard requiring electricity meters to be easily accessible (albeit secure) by all potential customers, except perhaps in new build properties," he wrote in his report, addressed to Energy UK and the government's Department for Housing, Planning and Building Safety.

"In my opinion action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe you have the power to take such action."

Under a new code of practice introduced by independent energy regulator Ofgem in autumn, prepayment meters must only be installed where is "safe and practical".

It bans energy suppliers from forcibly installing prepayment meters for residents aged 75 and older. It also rules suppliers must visit properties before installing prepayment meters, while vulnerable customers can ask for them to be relocated.However, Mrs Faulkner's meter was fitted more than two decades before her death, and would not have been affected by the guidance, which applies to new meters.

The electricity company that installed Mrs Faulkner's meter in 2001 has “no records of what consideration they gave at the point of installation to the specific meter location", said Mr Potter.

An Ofgem spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with Bernadette’s family and friends after this incredibly tragic incident.

"We expect suppliers to carefully consider whether their customers’ meters are safe and appropriate for them to use, and to proactively identify if a customer may be vulnerable and in need of further support, and if they are eligible to join the Priority Services Register (PSR).

“If a consumer cannot easily access their meter or is experiencing any challenges in viewing, topping up, or operating it, they should speak to their supplier as soon as possible so they can get the support they need and discuss the alternative options, which could include their meter being replaced or relocated.

"If a customer is unhappy with how their situation is handled by their supplier, they can raise a complaint with the Energy Ombudsman.”

Trade association Energy UK has said the energy industry will work to help prevent repeats of the "tragic" incident.

“This is a very sad and upsetting case and our thoughts are with Mrs Faulkner’s family," said a spokesperson.

"We will of course be responding to the coroner in detail and the energy industry will also work to support any measures or actions that could help prevent a repeat of this tragic incident. “

A spokesperson for the Department for Housing, Planning and Building Safety said: "Our sympathies on this tragic case are with Bernadette’s family.

"We will carefully consider the findings in the coroner's report and will respond fully in due course."

Prepayment meters are also known as pay-as-you-go meters, and they are a common way to pay energy bills.

A meter is first installed in the home and then a person can top up their credit at a local shop or online. This allows people to buy their energy in units before they use it.

Prepayment meters are more expensive to operate than other types of meters, with cheaper tariffs not always available.A spokesperson for Mrs Faulkner's landlord Camden Council, which acted as Mrs Faulkner's landlord, said: "It is very sad that Mrs Faulkner lost her life in this way and our deepest sympathies are with her family and friends.

“Camden Council does not have control of where energy meters are sited in our housing, this rests with the utility company who install them, but we agree that they should not be placed out of reach.

“Should our tenants raise concerns about their placement, we will always make representations on behalf of them for the meter to be made safely accessible.

“We will give careful consideration to the coroner’s report to the government and Energy UK to ensure that we are doing all that we can for our tenants who experience this issue.”