The Times OnlineOne man’s anger over his exorbitant fines is set to trigger a test case that has sent councils running for their lawyers. Will the Human Rights Act finally tame the parking police, asks Emma Smith of The Sunday Times
Alex Henney is an angry man. In the past two years he has been the victim of parking fines in Camden, north London, for offences he says “had nothing to do with parking management and everything to do with making money”.
On one occasion his car was towed away from a quiet side street three minutes after being ticketed, while another time he was fined £100 for not displaying an up-to-date residents’ permit, even though his permit had expired only two days before and the local authority had received the £90 payment for it to be renewed.
Now he’s fighting back using a legal weapon that has never been tested but has alarmed local authorities to the point where they are scurrying to seek legal advice.
According to the Human Rights Act a punishment must be proportionate to the offence and Henney argues this is not the case with towing charges of more than £150 in London. “My punishment has been excessive and unfair,”
said Henney. “People will support sensible parking management but not the enforcement of trivial infractions, and traffic attendants who descend like vultures ticketing motorists who are no more than a minute or two late back to their car.”
Henney is taking his case to the Parking and Traffic Appeals Service, which adjudicates parking fines in the capital, and says if all else fails he plans to apply for a judicial review in what could become a test case for appeals against overzealous clamping and towing. Some legal experts say Henney, who has helped form the London Motorists Action Group to fight similar cases, stands a good chance of succeeding.“There is no reason why the man in the street couldn’t use the Human Rights Act to appeal against a towing and if more people are aware of it I suspect more people would appeal,”
said Toby Halliwell, a Bristol-based lawyer and former adjudicator for the National Parking Adjudication Service (NPAS).
Henney’s frustrations are echoed in towns and cities across Britain, where revenue from parking increased by 71% between 1997 and 2004. Eight million parking penalties were issued in England and Wales in 2004 — one for every three cars — and motorists are paying more than £1 billion per year in parking fines and charges.
Volunteers trying to save the stricken whale that strayed into the Thames last month were handed parking tickets amounting to £300, despite having vehicles marked “marine medic” or “marine ambulance”. In Bury, Greater Manchester last week a traffic warden slapped a ticket on a van and digger being used to resurface a street.
Laws passed in 1991 allowed local authorities to take control of parking enforcement from the police. London was the first to adopt the new system in 1993-94 followed by Winchester in 1996, and 174 local authorities (140 outside London) have now adopted the powers that allow them to keep some of the revenue from fines to invest in other local services.
Before 1994 a few traffic wardens employed by police pounded the streets from 9am to 5pm. Today’s traffic “attendants” are usually employed by private contractors who compete for lucrative local authority contracts and frequently set benchmarks (in reality, targets) for the number of penalty charges their staff should hand out per shift.
There are attendants on duty in many areas from early in the morning until well into the night and many are armed with clamps and a tow truck to remove cars that have overstayed their allotted time by only a few minutes. In Bristol a motorist recently had his car towed away after underpaying a parking fee on a meter by £1.50, the sort of tow-happy response that was last month criticised by NPAS, which considers appeals against fines outside London.
NPAS appears to support the principle behind Henney’s case. Caroline Sheppard, the chief adjudicator for England and Wales, wrote in a recent report to the Commons transport select committee: “The European convention on human rights places greater duty on councils to have regard to proportionality. It is for the council to prove that the removal (of a vehicle) is proportionate and necessary.”
In some areas the revolt against parking fines has gone further. A group of residents in the northeast is bringing into question the system of parking enforcement, demanding councils refund thousands of pounds in illegitimate fines.
Sunderland city council has been forced to return about £34,000 to motorists wrongly fined because the council did not have the right to impose fines in some areas. An internal review, completed last month, found more far-reaching problems.
Since taking over parking enforcement from the police in February 2003 the council had issued tickets that did not include the date on which the offence took place, and it had failed to maintain proper signs and road markings.
Neil Herron, a former fishmonger and founder of the People’s No Campaign, which crusades against what it views as “unacceptable or unaccountable governance”, began investigating the council’s errors in 2004. “Sunderland city council has handled parking management with complete incompetence,” he said. “What we’ve discovered could mean every parking ticket issued since February 2003 is invalid.”
Herron believes he has unearthed similar mistakes in councils including Blackburn, Accrington, Rochdale and most recently Westminster, which issues more tickets than any other local authority — just under 820,000 in 2004-05. “There are mistakes like this cropping up all across the country,” he said. “The implications of the Sunderland case may produce a massive domino effect. This is a shambles.”
The Department for Transport was concerned enough to begin a consultation process on parking enforcement and policy in October and is drawing up new statutory guidelines for local authorities. Keith Banbury, chief executive of the British Parking Association, a trade body whose members include companies that employ wardens, has called for fundamental reform in the contracts between contractors and councils.
Last year a London tribunal heard that parking attendants are expected to write 1.4 tickets per hour, although NCP, the country’s largest provider of parking attendants, says it no longer offers ticket-related bonus schemes or targets for the number of tickets that attendants should issue. “It was just too damaging for the company’s public image,” said a spokesman. “We now think all such schemes should be banned.”
NPAS upholds just under two-thirds (62%) of appeals against parking fines. Two councils — Islington and Trafford — lost more than 90% of motorists’ appeals against fines. But less than 1% of fines are challenged.
A recent Birmingham University study, commissioned by NPAS, found more than half of those questioned did not know about the appeals process.
Paul Watters of the AA Motoring Trust believes some parking enforcement is “verging on the obsessive”. “Sometimes common sense is lost,” he says. “Then it becomes a battle between the enforcers and the motorist. Only a few days ago we heard about a case of a man who tried to stop a tow truck removing his car. The dispute went on for hours and it was ridiculous, because the driver was even offering to pay the £200 tow fine, he just didn’t want to have to stand there while his car was carted away.”
In a recent report to the Commons transport select committee, the trust criticised the use of “random and untargeted wheel clamping and towing”, councils who ignore or automatically reject appeals and bailiff companies who are employed by local councils to collect unpaid fines but can end up hounding “innocent victims of car cloning or false registration”.
“Bad practice continues routinely on a day-to-day basis,” it said. “Authorities do not respond quickly enough to inquiries, fail to adequately maintain signs and road markings and allow attendants to issue harsh or unjustified penalty notices. It is a huge business and in some areas it seems to be out of control.”
IT'S A TESTING JOB
If you’re thinking of becoming a parking attendant you might assume that a willingness to wear a uniform and be unpopular with drivers are the two vital qualifications, writes Roland White.
In fact there is surprisingly brisk competition for a job that can now pay up to £8 an hour and many employers insist applicants pass an aptitude test. Don’t expect anything too rigorous, though. Typical is the written exam set by NCP, which employs 3,000 attendants on behalf of councils across the country. Its questions include:
Copy out the following sentence in capital letters: “If you are asked to work on a public holiday you will receive holiday pay plus your regular earnings.” (There’s no catch — you just copy the sentence.)
What is the difference between meters and metres? There are 18 questions, all similarly challenging, and candidates have 20 minutes to complete the test. One in three people fail.
Despite such exams the National Parking Adjudication Service says 9% of appeals are made by motorists who say they found mistakes on their ticket or no ticket at all.
NCP insists its standards are high. “The test is to see if applicants can go through to the interview stage,” says Tim Cowan, a spokesman.
“If they pass the test and the interview they are taken on as a trainee. They then have one or two weeks of classroom training followed by a written exam and a three-month probation period. They go out initially with a supervisor and are only allowed out on their own when the supervisor is sure they can do the job.”
After being approached by The Sunday Times, NCP said it would make its aptitude exam available on its website (http://www.ncp.co.uk/) for those who want to test their brain power.