What are your rights when dealing with private parking companies?

Solicitor Jane McLaughlin, inset, has issued advice to motorists involved in private parking dispute

Solicitor Jane McLaughlin, inset, has issued advice to motorists involved in private parking disputes after controversial cases at Sentinel House in Norwich. Picture: Jane McLaughlin/David Hannant - Credit: Jane McLaughlin/David Hannant

Following a recent spate of motorists becoming embroiled in disputes over private car parks, Norwich Specialist DAVID HANNANT spoke to a local solicitor about where people hit with these charges stand legally.

Parking sign at Sentinel House in Norwich. Picture: David Hannant

Parking sign at Sentinel House in Norwich. Picture: David Hannant - Credit: Archant

Jane McLaughlin is a senior solicitor based in Norwich who has represented a number of motorists in parking disputes and said private parking firms often attempted to "bamboozle" people into pay unjust amounts.

This is her advice to anybody who finds themselves in a dispute with a private parking firm, such as National Parking Enforcement Ltd.

- Know what you have received

Private parking companies have no power to issue fines or penalties to enforce private parking tickets. Instead, the 'fines' sent out to drivers are technically invoices they have issued claiming alleged breach of a contract.

Dan and Victoria King, from Norwich, who were hit with a hefty bill after spending three minutes in

Dan and Victoria King, from Norwich, who were hit with a hefty bill after spending three minutes in Sentinel House car park. Picture: Courtesy of the Kings - Credit: The Kings

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It is important to understand the differences between public parking tickets issued for breaching rules on a public land such as roads and public car parks - such as those owned by local authorities. Private parking tickets are issued for breaching rules on private land - such as in a supermarket car park or one serving a shopping mall.

Private parking companies cannot tow away your vehicle, clamp you or send bailiffs to recover money. All these steps are illegal and the only thing they can do is take you to county court - which costs them a court issue fee.

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Before the parking company gets to this stage, they will bamboozle you with letters either directly themselves or using a debt collection agency.

Consumers are more likely to be sued by parking companies if they ignore all the paperwork and do not respond setting out their viewpoint.

Jane McLaughlin, a Norwich solicitor who has offered advice to people who receive 'fines' from priva

Jane McLaughlin, a Norwich solicitor who has offered advice to people who receive 'fines' from private parking firms. Picture: Jane McLaughlin - Credit: Jane McLaughlin

- What to do if you receive one of these

The worst thing anyone can do is ignore the fine or ignore the letters. It is important to reply to at least the first few of them.

They (the company) do not really want to spend the money taking people to county court so will try to bamboozle people into paying, stating the fine will increase if it is not paid within a certain imminent time limit.

If somebody responds by saying this is not lawful, that no contract was formed, that they did not see the sign or whatever the reason is for running over a stipulated permitted time, there is a good chance the contact will stop.

If you have been there more than an hour over allotted time, then make the payment in full. It is best to draft a covering letter and send a cheque, rather than paying online; but if you pay online then make sure you get a reference number.

- Why not just ignore the letters?

Some people do successfully manage to avoid paying tickets by ignoring it and leaving the company to write endless letters and eventually make a decision as to whether to take you to county court.

If you decide to respond, you should start by appealing directly to the company and if they reject this you can appeal to an independent organisation known as Parking On Private Land Appeals - which is administered by the ombudsman service.

This is a far better bet than leaving it to the vagaries of a county court judge, as having a county court judgement against you can affect your credit rating.

- If the car park is connected to a business, contact them and keep evidence

If a consumer is in a car park which has many different retail outlets, one might lose track of time. It is always worth writing a letter attaching till receipts and stating why one went over the allotted time making purchases.

Always keep your evidence.

Often, if you contact the retailer directly they may over-rule the parking company and overturn the charge.

- Check what regulations say

Anybody who receives a ticket should look at the British Parking Association code of practice. It sets out in detail where parking signs have to be situated, how many of them are needed and what they have to spell out to the motorists.

It also states that it wouldn't expect the penalty to be more than £100 and if it is more than this the company must be able to justify this in advance.

The amount of the penalty has to be set out on notices displayed around the car park, so it is well worth looking at these detailed stipulations.

If the signs do not fit these regulations, it strengthens your grounds to appeal.

Sentinel House

Ms McLaughlin's advice comes after two known cases of motorists being fined for incredibly short stays in the car park outside of Sentinel House in Norwich.

The first saw married couple Daniel and Victoria King pay £320 for a combined three minutes of parking. These related to two occasions on consecutive days that Mr King dropped his wife off for work at Aviva.

The couple were sent several letters by National Parking Enforcement Ltd relating to the incidents, which the pair eventually paid.

A second incident at the same car park saw David Barmby receive a £100 fine for turning around in the car park - a manoeuvre which he says neither saw him stop or exit the vehicle.

He is in the process of appealing against the charge and has seen his first attempt refuse.

These are far from the only incidents of people being contacted by NPE in relation to the car park on Surrey Street.

Fakenham Miller's Yard

Ms McLaughlin said a particularly problematic car park in the past had been Miller's Yard in Fakenham, which had been at the centre of a number of cases she had dealt with.

The car park, which is managed by CBGA Robson and National Parking Enforcement Ltd includes two hours of free parking - but only to motorists who take a ticket and input their registration plate number in a machine.

She said: "The signage is ambiguous, offering motorists a free two hours in large letters, yet telling people they risk fines if they do not take tickets in small letters."

The problems at this particular car park reached the council chamber at Fakenham Town Council in February, after councillors were made aware of the troubles.

George Acheson, then mayor of Fakenham, said at the time: "The people who complain will never come back to the town - it is bad publicity for Fakenham."

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