A judge has granted Scottish Power warrants to enter homes to forcibly fit prepayment meters after they were temporarily banned following a scandal around the practice.

District Judge Samuel Goozee heard details of 20 applications from 124 made by debt collection agency Richburns on behalf of the energy firm at Berkshire Magistrates Court, sitting in Reading, on Thursday to establish if they had met the requirements set out in Ofgem’s updated code of practice.

However, the warrants cannot be used by Scottish Power until Ofgem has granted its own approval.

Currently, no suppliers are carrying out involuntary installations and face severe penalties if they do unless they meet strict criteria set by Ofgem.

A voluntary code of practice governing the installation of prepayment meters, which all energy companies signed up to in April, was put in place after an investigation by The Times revealed evidence emerged of bad behaviour by suppliers severely affecting struggling customers.

The courts also came in for criticism after it emerged that batches of applications to forcibly install the meters had been approved.

Among the cases heard by the court on Thursday were several involving multiple attempts by Scottish Power to contact the holders of accounts with outstanding amounts of thousands of pounds.

In one case, the court heard that Richburns had made 17 attempts to contact the residents of one property in Grimsby with an outstanding balance of £2,179.24 for electricity and £2,769.87 for gas on an account that was opened in July 2021 and for which no payments had been made.

Richburns said over 92 days it had sent four letters, seven emails and five SMS messages and made one personal visit to the property but had not been able to make contact with either the residents – even though the property appeared occupied – or the neighbours on either side.

Judge Goozee granted all of the applications.

Scottish Power said it would not fit a meter if they discovered evidence of a risk of high vulnerability once they had entered a house.

In each case, £30 would be credited to the prepayment meter when it was fitted.

In September, the regulator confirmed that the code of practice for the involuntary installation of prepayment meters (PPMs) would be made mandatory while also extending protection against forced installations for the most vulnerable households.

It also announced a ban on energy suppliers forcibly installing prepayment meters for people over 75 years old with no support in their house and in homes with children under the age of two.

Initially, the no-install rule applied to customers aged 85 and over with no other support in their home, or households with residents with severe health issues including terminal illnesses or those with a medical dependency on a warm home.

Ofgem said dropping the upper age limit to 75 and adding homes with very young children would ensure more people are protected this winter.

Under the new rules, which come into effect on November 8, suppliers must ensure they are acting in a fair and responsible way with involuntary installations used only as a last resort.

Following a public consultation over the summer, the code will become part of suppliers’ licence conditions, and breaking the rules could result in enforcement action and “substantial” fines.

An Ofgem spokeswoman said: “Ofgem put a set of clear conditions in place, which suppliers must meet before they can restart the involuntary installation of PPM. To date, no supplier has met those conditions and until they do, no warrants to install a PPM should be executed.”

“We are aware that courts are running pilot schemes to test the application process for warrants, however our expectation of suppliers is clear.”

A Scottish Power spokeswoman said: “We are only applying for warrants for customers who have refused to engage with us on repayment after multiple attempts, to agree a repayment arrangement that is affordable to their circumstances.

“At every point in the process, we are ensuring that vulnerability and affordability checks are made, in order to support customers with the debt management advice they need.

“The cost of unpaid bills ultimately falls on all customers and the use of warrants to recover debt is a last resort when all other avenues have been exhausted.

“We are committed to adhering to the strict new conditions the regulator has put in place and we will continue to work considerately with customers to help them manage their debt.”

However Simon Francis, co-ordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said the warrants had “taken everyone by surprise”.

He said: “Charities met with Ofgem in recent days to discuss customer service and debt and at no time did their officials suggest that approval for forced prepayment meters had been granted to Scottish Power, nor that any company had met the obligations the regulator has put upon them.

“Scottish Power, the regulator, the courts and ministers have serious questions to answer about what is happening – and MPs must ask them urgently.

“It is totally inappropriate for energy firms to be seeking to force their way into people’s homes to force them on to dangerous prepayment meters that leave them at risk of disconnection and going without energy.”