When a parking company fired off an £85 ticket to Nicholas Bowen, little did it know just who it was taking on.
ParkingEye went after Bowen for overstaying the free two-hour limit at a motorway service station and, when he wouldn’t roll over, decided to sue him. But the firm, owned by Capita, may now be regretting picking this particular fight after a judge struck out the case and ordered the company to pay his costs of £1,550.
However, it probably wouldn’t be completely accurate to describe this as a case of the little man taking on the big company and winning, because Bowen arguably isn’t the sort of person you would want to get into a legal battle with: he is a renowned barrister and Queen’s Counsel who has undertaken a raft of high-profile cases. And in some ways he has been down this road before. Twenty years ago he got an injunction against a rogue clamper during the lunch break at Bournemouth county court – something that attracted media attention, including an article in the Daily Mail headlined “Rumpole beats the clampers”.
This time round, exhausted and in need of a rest while driving from Hereford back home to London in May 2016, Bowen had pulled into Welcome Break’s Membury services on the M4, intending to have a short nap. “It was just before midnight and the car park was virtually empty,” he recalls. “I woke up at about 2.20am and, feeling refreshed, drove home.” But Bowen, who insists that where he parked there was no signage setting out any parking information, had exceeded the two-hour free period by, he estimates, about 20 minutes. The company says it was 35.
He claims he was so tired when he drove in that he didn’t notice the signs that were there, and subsequently discovered (and says he has photos to prove it) that “the only reference to 24/7 charging was in microscopic print in a different part of the car park requiring 20/20 vision or a magnifying glass”. That triggered a parking ticket for £85. He wrote to ParkingEye to explain what had happened – but, after taking the trouble to go through its appeals system, the operator refused to waive the penalty. That was upheld by Popla, the independent appeals service for parking notices issued on private land.
ParkingEye pressed ahead with its plans to sue Bowen through the county court to recover its claim for the unpaid ticket, a further penalty for non-payment and costs. At this stage he decided that if he didn’t stand up to them, “who would?” So he defended the case and threw the legal book at them.
When the claim came to court on Friday 18 August ParkingEye was not there, and the judge ordered the company to pay Bowen’s costs as the case had by then been struck out.
Consumer website Parking Prankster claims the company is launching up to 1,000 court cases a week, often to recover very small amounts of money. Many come from land controlled by hospitals and large supermarkets.
Bowen said in an email to the company: “It is a pretty poor show that, having issued proceedings, ParkingEye lacked the courage of its convictions or confidence to even turn up to the small claims court to argue about the commercial and legal justification for your business model.
“My defence was that your contract was unenforceable, and that you have no legal right to charge members of the public for night parking in service station car parks. Charging overstayers at night is unfair and a violation of consumer protection law. I defended your misconceived claim on a public interest basis, as it would have been far easier just to pay the ticket.”
Bowen went further, telling ParkingEye that he was demanding the immediate payment of the costs for the work preparing his eight-page defence. He accused it of “indulging in pernicious bullying tactics against motorists” and claimed it was relying “either on apathy, or that most of your victims lack the ability or funds to fight back”. He added: “I hope ParkingEye will learn a lesson from losing this case, reconsider your contractual terms and change what is an unlawful and unconscionable practice.”
But ParkingEye said it had sent a representative to court and that it had fully intended to present the claim and put forward its arguments and evidence. It said its representative was told the case had not been listed because it had not paid the hearing charge, which it had.
In a statement ParkingEye said: “In this case, the motorist overstayed the two hours free of charge period by 35 minutes without purchasing a parking ticket. This was the reason for his parking charge being issued.”
It pointed out that Popla upheld the firm’s original decision that the charge was enforceable. “No payment for the charge was received following Popla’s decision, so the case was taken to court. A representative of ParkingEye attended on 18 August to provide arguments to the judge alongside the motorist’s representative. However, upon arrival to court our representative was informed by a member of the court staff that the claim was not on the list.
“In spite of us being told the hearing had been taken off the list, the motorist’s representative appeared before a judge without our attendance, and we have not had the opportunity to provide our arguments as appropriate and fairly, as we had intended. ParkingEye is now considering its options within the time limits set out by the court.”
Notwithstanding the drivers of camper vans and other vehicles who might cheekily seek some free night-time parking, Bowen is hoping his experience might be the trigger for a campaign to ensure there is free parking at night on motorways for those who need a break. “Municipal car parks have chargeable periods, and I would have thought there should not be a charge – for instance between 10pm and 7am,” said the barrister, based at Doughty Street Chambers. “There should not be a disincentive to stop at night – as the sign say: ‘Tiredness kills, take a break’.”
The AA points out that parking operators are supposed to give drivers a “grace period” of 10 minutes to leave the car park before they take enforcement action. It believes there is a case for a special area at motorway service areas where drivers could rest in their cars without incurring penalties.
Edmund King, AA president, says: “Motorway service areas are essential for road safety and growing more important as motorways are widened on the cheap by using the hard shoulder. Tired drivers need somewhere to stop off, as it is estimated up to 10% of fatalities on motorways could be due to drivers falling asleep at the wheel. Our normal advice is to have a catnap for 15 minutes, a couple of coffees and then drive carefully.”
The AA has genuine sympathy for drivers such as Bowen who take the advice to ‘take a break’ and then get penalised for overstaying their welcome, King adds. “Obviously, these areas need some parking restrictions in order to prohibit some from parking all day, but perhaps there should be a special area to allow tired drivers to sleep longer. However, if they overstay and are not in the car a ticket would be legitimate.”
Next month the AA is due to launch a campaign for better tracking of where and how many tickets are issued by private parking enforcers, bringing them into line with council-run parking. It wants to be able to spot areas, identifiable by postcode, where there are particular problems with large numbers of drivers being slapped with penalty charge notices.
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