In November 2009, a friend (S) received a “Private Parking Ticket” through the post from OPC Parking, an Elstree parking enforcement company, seeking to charge her £100 for a purported overstay in a Wolverhampton retail park’s free car park four months earlier. Not an uncommon event these days.
S was adamant that she had not overstayed and decided to face them down. We suggested OPC should not assume the registered keeper was the driver, and that they had no statutory powers to demand that information. No joy. We warned them about demanding purported civil debts via distress and humiliation, and that their “charge” was an unenforceable penalty, not a genuine pre-estimate of loss. (One well known motoring correspondent, Honest John of the Telegraph, recommends sending cheques for £5 or £10 in full and final settlement in cases like this.)
Four months passed. A set of County Court papers arrived, seeking £50 plus interest and a £25 court fee. We filed a Defence, adding a nominal counterclaim for distress arising from harassment and invasion of privacy. The action was transferred to S’ local court in Wolverhampton. The court mediation service reported OPC’s position – S ought to give in “because they have CCTV footage and photos”. I disagreed and proposed that the claim and counterclaim were both dropped. The mediation failed and the case was listed for a small claims trial.
OPC then failed to pay the hearing fee, perhaps finally accepting they’d lose, and the case was struck out and dismissed without attendance. It still left S wondering how they could ever have thought she overstayed in the first place.
Light was unexpectedly thrown in early 2011, when Trading Standards prosecuted OPC for offences committed at that site. Over and above the main point – the wrongful issue of charge notices for drivers who had left within the free time limit and returned later on the same day, explaining how S was wrongfully threatened – there were related charges covering misleading signs, late request of DVLA details and use of a fake debt recovery firm. OPC and its director Douglas Harris, were convicted on 3 March 2011 and together fined £29,850 plus costs of £7,585 on 31 March.
The Big Brother Watch factor here?
Well, over and above the browbeating use of letters that give the impression that errant parkers have incurred a fine, to be collected via a legal department with further charges unless paid within 14 days, it is no less astonishing to note that the free car park was monitored not by the traditional man in a hut, nor by a patrolling warden, but by a battery of CCTV ANPR cameras. So with the presumed consent of the retailers, all of the car park users’ details were logged on this system. Over and above the scope that this provided for accessing the DVLA’s database purely on a say so, it would leave a justifiable suspicion that any bulk collection of data in this manner might be open to abuse, if its collector was anything other than scrupulously honest.
Tightening up on the DVLA’s apparent cavalier attitude to data requests, in the face of abuses such as those that led to this prosecution, is long overdue. But perhaps it is also high time to crack down on the widespread use of misleading correspondence by parking enforcement companies looking to bully motorists into paying exorbitant charges for trivial civil law misdemeanours that will usually involve no material loss or damage. Especially when there is no need for new law, only effective application of existing law. And indeed to ask out loud whether monitoring free car parks with ANPR cameras is either proportionate or desirable.