PANELS BOSS WHATCOTT SENTENCING
24 February 2017
EPC panels boss Christopher Whatcott has been told by a judge that he is “strikingly arrogant, unpleasant and bullying”, and that he is unfit to run a business.
Sentencing the online EPC businessman (left) at St Albans Crown Court today, Judge Jonathan Carroll told the defendant he was satisfied that the intention of EPC panel site First Choice EPC . com and two related sites had been to deliberately mislead consumers.
“That was not accidental,” said the judge. “I am satisfied that you used a loophole or grey area in the law to your advantage and sought to deprive customers of their right to cancel and charged them grossly inflated fees.
“Your trading practices were deeply unsavoury. I have found you to be strikingly arrogant, unpleasant and bullying.”
He sentenced the panels boss, who had no previous convictions, to eight months and two weeks imprisonment suspended for two years, and the maximum 300 hours of unpaid work. He ordered him to pay £1,000 costs and compensation of £74.90 to each of three defendants affected by the business.
He also disqualified Mr Whatcott as a company director for 10 years, saying: “You are unfit to run a business and will not do so for some years.”
And he added: “Had you pleaded guilty to an offence of dishonesty I would have had no hesitation in sentencing you to an immediate period of imprisonment.”
Mr Whatcott had previously denied charges of fraud and unfair trading, and elected to put his case at a trial which began late last month (30 January) and was scheduled to last for up to five weeks, but at the start of the fifth day he pleaded guilty to three charges of Unfair Commercial Practice.
His guilty pleas followed a scathing critique of his trading practices from the prosecution, and testimony from seven of the 30 witnesses scheduled to give evidence against him, but Mr Whatcott did not plead guilty to two fraud charges, which were not proceeded with. Three other Unfair Commercial Practice charges were ordered to lie on file.
Opening the Hertfordshire Trading Standards prosecution at the start of the trial, prosecutor Andrew Johnson had recounted a damning catalogue of poor trading practices, which he said the defendant had engaged in with First Choice EPC, and two other panel sites called Low Cost EPC and Savi EPC.
These included charging unjustified cancellation fees with First Choice EPC, adding other supposed costs over a 15 day period with all the websites to demand close to £450 from consumers in aggressive emails, and repeatedly charging customers’ credit cards for EPC fees already paid.
Mr Johnson had told the court that Trading Standards had tried to advise the defendant on making his websites compliant with legislation, but he had rejected their advice, and even provided one TS letter to customers claiming it supported his trading practices.
At today’s sentencing hearing, Mr Johnson told the court that even after pre trial preparations had begun Mr Whatcott had continued to send out aggressive emails to customers seeking additional fees to which he was not entitled.
He added that 561 customers had received a chargeback from banks for EPC card payments of up to £39.95 which had been charged multiple times, and that these payments alone had amounted to more than £22,000.
Despite this, the court heard that Mr Whatcott’s debts far exceeded “any assets that could be identified”, and that he was currently working as an Uber taxi driver, while living with his ex-partner at her flat in Hitchin.
Witness Andrew Tillet gave evidence for the defence about Mr Whatcott’s previous businesses selling HIPS packs, and later EPCs. He told the court he had known the defendant since 1995 when they had both worked for a mobile phone company, and had later worked for him until 2011.
He said Mr Whatcott’s original intention with the HIPs businesses, which subsequently failed, had been to set up an online estate agency business, and that “many people were happy” with the controversial ‘reverse auction’ system used with panel site Express EPC.
Under cross examination, Mr Tillet admitted that there had been complaints about non payment of energy assessors and non delivery of EPCs with Express EPC, but he denied any knowledge of Mr Whatcott’s HIPs businesses closing because they were de-registered by the Property Codes Compliance Board.
Defence counsel Benn Maguire added that Mr Whatcott often felt that people were taking advantage of him, that people had lost fairly small amounts on his websites, and that the law in this area was a legislative minefield. He also cited Mr Whatcott’s early guilty pleas, but the judge said that they were very late, since the trial had begun and witnesses had been warned to appear, so he could give little credit for it.
Judge Carroll added that the trading practices which Mr Whatcott had admitted had continued for almost two years, and he told the defendant: “Almost from the beginning you were incapable of running a competent business. You did not accept any advice that you did not agree with.”
To download details of the charges which were admitted click here
To download the full indictment which was presented at the trial click here
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