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Martin Kelner, Journalist, Author and Radio Presenter.
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What Constitutes a Contract?
By Martin "Can't Pay, Won't Pay" Kelner on Jul 30, 2015 - 7:23:20 PM

The case of the century:

On the 9th of May I parked on a patch of waste ground outside a pizza place in Wakefield.  Noticing it had been restyled by Excel Parking as a pay-and-display car park, and figuring it would take us between one & two hours to eat, I put in the fee for two hours' parking & stuck my ticket in the windscreen.

We were out within an hour.  A couple of weeks later I got a demand for £60 from Vehicle Control Services of Sheffield, to which I politely responded with a photocopy of the ticket I had bought, which fortunately I still had - and indeed still have - pointing out that I had paid for my parking, therefore shorely shome mishtake.

They wrote back to me saying that as the number on my ticket was not the same as the number photographed by their vehicle recognition device, I owed them £60 which would rise to £100 if not paid promptly. 

They gave me a web address if I wished to appeal, where I found a form requiring me to register, with my email, home address, and various other details.  I was not prepared to do this, in view of the fact - and this is a key issue for me - I had actually paid for my parking.  I wrote to them telling them as much.

Their barely literate letter back went, "You have states (sic) that you have purchased a ticket for parking.  This is not the case, the ticket you have provided bears no relation the vehicle registration (sic)........In fact, there is not one alpha/numeric the same, we are at a loss why you believe this proves that you purchased a parking ticket.  All this shows is that someone purchased a vehicle that was not yours."

In as good grace as I could muster, I assured Vehicle Control Services that if they were suggesting I was operating some complex scam where two vehicles could somehow use the same ticket - I don't even know how you would do that - in order to avoid a £2.40 parking charge, it was I who was at a loss to understand them.

I know I bought a ticket, I stuck it on my windscreen.  And they know I bought a ticket.  Of course they do.  They've seen it.  I wrote asking them to clarify if what they were demanding from me was £100 for not inputting the correct details when I bought my ticket.

Their reply accused me of being "in breech (sic) of the contract that has formed..." (still not brilliant on spelling and grammar).  They threatened debt recovery action, legal proceedings and so on, which might mean a "County Court Judgement against me that could severely affect my ability to obtain credit in the future."  This last bit was in bold and underlined.

So - and here's the key issue - how much of a contract have I entered into in parking my car; signing nothing, and frankly reading nothing?  Is it my duty to read their signs?  Am I contractually obliged? 

Because on the alpha/numeric issue, Vehicle Control Services are right, the number I entered on my ticket was nothing like my registration number.  I just put in any old number - ABJ1 as it happens - so I could quickly pay for my parking and join my family for tea.  Putting in the correct number would have involved going back to the car, checking on the number, and going into the cafe to get my reading glasses from my wife.  Go shoot me. 

I did not realise I was entering into a contract that required me to do all this.

I now know that these private parking companies, having found their fines are legally unenforceable, are relying on contract law.  But if I honestly believed the contract only required me to pay for the parking, which I did, is there any court so lacking in common sense they would find against me?

I am genuinely seeking information here.  I could easily pay the £100, but I am prepared to go to court on principle if there's a chance of success.  So your views on this would be very welcome.  You can email me through this site.  I am also on Twitter and Facebook.

It was the heavy letter threatening debt recovery and court action that particularly rankled.  I did a feature for the Mail On Sunday some years ago about debt recovery - so-called repo men - so I know what that can involve.  It's not an issue for me, but I know such a letter could scare the pants off some people.  And it may be time, might it not, to stop these private parking firms from sending such letters.

Clearly, the business plan of Excel depends on a number of people misunderstanding their so-called contract.  There's no way they can make a living on £2.40 parking fees.  Therefore it is in their interests to make their "contracts" as opaque as possible, while just remaining within some code of practice.

The other important principle is the issue of small towns like Wakefield selling off these sites to people like Excel.  Surely, if there are parking fees to be collected, the local economy benefits if they are kept local.  Also, once the sites are sold off, they are lost to the city, and will remain bare, simply a cash cow for private companies.

All views are welcome.  They're threatening to come and take my first born any day now, so all legal advice especially gratefully received.






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