The Government is reining in the cowboy companies that rip off motorists by outlawing clamping from 1 October. From then on, if a private parking operator wants to penalise you for breaking one of the rules of its car park, it’ll have to hand you a ticket or send an invoice through the post.
You may not have to pay it, though. If you park without a permit in a council parking bay, you’re parked illegally and can be penalised with a fine. But if you overstay in a private car park, you’re in breach of contract.
Companies aren’t allowed to fine you for this – and it’s illegal for them to refer to their charges as a “fine” or “penalty”. That’s why they call their invoices Parking Charge Notices, which sound confusingly like the Penalty Charge Notices issued by councils.
If you make the mistake of ignoring a Penalty Charge Notice handed out by or on behalf of a council, the issuing statutory body can increase the level of fine, and eventually pass the debt to a bailiff. However, a private parking company has no power to enforce its charges.
A Department for Transport (DfT) spokeswoman told us: “Charges from a private parking company can only be enforced in court.” That means the operator has to prove you were in breach of contract in front of a judge.
So if there’s any flaw in the signage in the car park laying out the terms and conditions – if they were awkwardly placed, or faded, badly worded or ambiguous, for example – its case will be dismissed.
The company also has to justify the damages it’s pursuing you for. The DfT spokeswoman added: “Private parking companies’ charges must be ‘reasonable’ and ‘proportionate’ to the breach of contract. If a charge is brought to court, the court will decide whether the fee is reasonable.”
A council can slap you with a £120 penalty for overstaying your ticket by a couple of minutes with no questions asked, but a private operator can’t do this. If it wants you to pay £120, it has to prove that your actions left it out of pocket by that amount – and if you’ve overstayed in a £5-per-hour car park by 20 minutes, it’s highly unlikely a company will be able to argue that it’s out of pocket by £120.
Obviously, if the operator has ensured signs in its car park are clear, you were in breach of the rules and the charge it’s pursuing you for is reasonable, it’s only fair to pay it. But if not, you shouldn’t be afraid to ignore the company’s demands for your cash.
There’s no legal obligation for you to respond to the operator and your credit rating won’t be affected if you refuse to pay. And it’s unlikely the company will actually take you to court.
Around two million private parking tickets are issued each year. But a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Justice revealed that in 2011 there were only 845 cases where members of the private parking industry body, the British Parking Association, took people to court.
Of those, just 49 went to a final hearing before a judge and in only 24 cases – less than half – did the decision go in favour of the company.