BY MATTHEW CORRIGAN
I realised my mistake straight away. Rather than add to the Saturday morning congestion of a busy, mixed-use street, I had opted to drive onto the wide, empty car park at the side of an NHS surgery. The moment I crossed the threshold, I saw the camera.
The terms and conditions were printed on a small wall-mounted sign: vehicle owners must register at reception in order to avoid a fine. But the surgery was closed for the weekend; there was nobody there. It therefore wasn’t possible to register. Gazing malevolently down from its mount high on the wall, the ANPR camera didn’t care. Its all-seeing lens was trained on the entrance. It had got me in its sights. I thought of a line from The Terminator:
“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity or remorse…”
The camera, a heartless and unfeeling automaton, was only doing its job.
Just like the receptionist with whom I spoke the following Monday, when I called in to explain what had happened. My appeal for clemency was haughtily dismissed. With the conceit so often found in those who, emboldened by belief in the importance of their jobs, gleefully wield their minuscule power over others, she advised me she was not prepared to intervene. There was no point arguing. Doctors’ receptionists are often masters in the art of intransigence, expertly ensuring GP’s are prevented from encountering too many sick people. I had no chance. The process was triggered.
It took ten days. When it arrived, the innocuous brown letter landing on my doormat gave no hint of the trouble it contained. The letter inside, with its red ink, official-sounding tone and photographs of my car left no doubt. For my twenty-four minute and fifty-eight second transgression, I was presented with a bill for the sum of one hundred pounds.
At this stage I feel bound to mention that the car park was private ground. I respect this, and would have been prepared to pay a reasonable fee had such an option been available. It wasn’t.
A hundred quid. Bollocks, I thought, to that and began to plan my strategy. The sum of £100 is, in the mind of any reasonable passenger aboard the proverbial Clapham Omnibus, an outrageously unfair amount. Judges, however, inhabit a rather different universe. In the recent, much-reported case of Parking Eye Ltd v Beavis, some buttheads in the Supreme Court found against the motorist. This effectively set a precedent for any old bunch of shoddy cowboys to charge whatever astronomical fee they like.
It was time to get a little creative. I thought back to a contract law module I had studied many moons ago. Though I failed spectacularly, something must have stuck. I vaguely remembered that a contract is unenforceable in the event that it contains terms with which it is not possible to comply. The sign had told me I must obtain permission. There was no way to obtain that permission. Ergo, I hoped, the contract failed.
Dubious? Possibly, but worth a try. I am most definitely not a lawyer. But neither, I suspected, were any of the bully boys hiding behind the company that had issued the invoice, or ‘Parking Charge Notice’ (a term deliberately designed to sound like Penalty Charge Notice – the official wording of a legally enforceable fine). It was definitely worth a try.
I drafted a letter. Enclosing photographs of the car park signs, I argued that it had been impossible to follow their instructions and for that reason I was refusing to pay the invoice. Then, I reasoned, if this shabby outfit wants to try to force me into a contract against my will, why not give them a taste of their own medicine? Why not try my own ‘reverse scam’ on them?
So I advised them that as the matter was now closed, and I had no desire to enter into protracted negotiations, I would levy my own charge of £100 per item should it be necessary for me to write to them again. Two can play the contract game.
A week later another innocuous brown envelope arrived. The company, Civil Enforcement Limited of Liverpool, decided they didn’t want to play ball after all. A terse letter confirmed the notice had been cancelled.
I hope this information spreads far and wide and I hope it manages to save someone some money. I can’t promise it will work. As I’ve already stated, I am far too dim to be a lawyer, but this was a method that worked for me.
There is a multitude of online complaints about the myriad snivelling little weasel companies like Civil Enforcement Ltd. The problem is clearly epidemic. I wonder how many people have been conned out of their cash by sharp practice like this. I wonder, too, how long it will be before the national scandal of car park robbery is properly brought to an end.