Parking Charge Notice

I received an unpleasant surprise in the post on Friday – a Parking Charge Notice. I won’t identify the car park or the company concerned, as I’m pretty sure that by the time I’ve finished typing this I will have defamed them. Suffice to say, a Google search for the company resulted in a large number of hits, very few with anything good to say about them.

What has struck me most about this experience, however, is how morally conflicted I have been about it in the last few days. First the facts: My vehicle was – correctly – identified as having overstayed in a private car park in Chesterfield. Six hours had been paid for but it left 6hrs 39 mins after it arrived. The Parking Charge Notice required immediate payment of £90, with a reduction to £60 if paid within three days. Ominously, a warning stated that if payment wasn’t made within 20 days “the first of many additional charges will be made” and mentioned £120.

Those are the facts of the case. I will now leave it to the Devil on one shoulder and the Angel on the other to make their cases….

The Devil

Coming from a private company operating in a private car park, the “Parking Charge Notice” has only a tenuous basis in law. Notices at the entrance to the car park imply a contract is being entered into by the driver with the land owner. An overstay will effectively be a breach of that contract and the land owner (or their agent – the parking company) can seek damages for that breach, along with reasonable administration fees or costs. They emphatically cannot impose a penalty, and to be fair, the wording of the Parking Charge Notice is very carefully phrased.

The appropriate level of damages – according to the barrack room lawyers on the the internet – effectively amount to the hourly parking rate. With “reasonable” fees/costs this would be in the order of £20 at the most. No matter what anyone says, £90 is a penalty.

Message boards such as Money Saving Expert etc. are bulging with advice on this very subject. That advice is emphatic: Never, Never, Never, pay a private Parking Charge Notice. Their reasoning is certainly plausible. Firstly, the contract is between the driver and the land owner. The Parking Charge Notice will have been sent to the registered keeper of the vehicle, as supplied by DVLA. There is no legal power for the parking company to even ask the registered keeper to identify the driver. Without proof that the registered keeper was the driver, any implicit threats contained in the notice (and any subsequent correspondence from the debt collection agency – actually still the parking company, but it sounds worse), are entirely hollow and without basis. In unlikely the event the company could prove the identity of the driver, they would have to take them to the Small Claims Court and obtain a judgement in their favour before they could take any substantive action to recover any money.

Given that they are clearly imposing a penalty, which they cannot do, the argument goes that no judge would find in favour of the parking company. In any event, until relatively recently, the web forum wisdom was that these companies never ever go to that extent, relying instead on the proportion of recipients who simply pay up to sustain their business.

However, that all changed when this particular company decided to take one case to court, presumably to try and send a message to Money Saving Expert and their ilk. This happened to come to court only last week, as it turns out. The parking company lost… on the basis of the logic expounded above. The hapless guinea pig had to pay £120 in court costs on some sort of technicality, but the parking company’s costs declared to the court were £4,500!

Whilst one case in the small claims court doesn’t set a binding precedent, the likelihood of them doing it again any time soon has completely vanished.

The aforementioned message boards are awash with contributors who say they always park in these private car parks and never pay, knowing they can safely ignore the inevitable letters they get – and thus presumably save themselves a lot of money in car park fees in the process.

So the word from the Devil is don’t pay and don’t worry about the (hollow) threats you’ll receive, as after three or four letters they will give up and it’ll all go away. Most importantly, you’ll be £60 less worse off.

Meanwhile, in the other ear…

The Angel

The first thing the Angel will say is: I’m Guilty. The meeting I was at had gone on longer than I anticipated. I knew the car park ticket had expired but I took the view the chances of an attendant noticing and ticketing me were near enough zilch. As it turned out the odds of getting caught were 100% as the crafty sods use ANPR! D’oh!

Whilst £60 isn’t a trivial amount of money and I could certainly do better things with it, paying up isn’t going to bankrupt me. Most of all, I don’t really want to associate myself with those who make up the bulk of the “don’t pay” crowd. Everyone of them has an excuse and it’s never their fault.

The company concerned are certainly not popular, but looking at it from the land owner’s perspective: They have a right to try and manage their car park, to deal with abuse and ensure it is available for their customers. As it happened, on the day in question, I was one of their customers and there was absolutely no competition for spaces (for all of the above reasons, the locals probably know better than to use it?). Whilst I dispute that my 39 minute overstay adversely affected the car park owner one bit, I understand that in these matters, it is totally impossible to exercise any objectivity – with the result that rules are applied rigidly. Sad but true.

The final word on the matter from the Angel is simply “do you want the hassle?” Forgetting for one second the obligation I am under to discharge lawful debts etc. (and the debate that raises – is it indeed a “lawful debt”?), I simply don’t want threats from a collections agency – no matter how empty they may be.

After all that, I doubt it will shock you to learn that I have taken the soft option and paid up. That was by no means always the case and over the last couple of days I have alternated wildly between the polar opposite views.

One thing is for sure, it is a very salutary lesson and one I won’t need to be taught again – look for ANPR cameras before pulling a fast one in a car park!

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