Money mensch: How to shoot down a car-park cowboy

By Martin Lewis, November 26, 2009
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It’s time to declare war on private parking operators that slap unfair tickets on our windscreens in supermarkets, housing estates and hospital car parks. Often these are completely invalid, and the best advice is “don’t pay ‘em”.

There are two types of parking tickets. The first are those from public bodies, like local councils and the police. These are totally legit, so if you get one and think it’s unfair, your only option is to appeal it (full guide and template letters at www.moneysavingexpert.com/parking).

My ire today is reserved for unfair tickets issued in private car parks or on private land, whether supermarkets or housing estates. Often these tickets, issued by private parking companies working for landowners, are not valid.

It is time to stick on your hat and grab a lasso, because you are entering the land of the cowboys.

Do not fall for any disguises
Private parking tickets are often worded and designed so they look like police or council tickets. A favourite ploy is to call them PCNs, mimicking official penalty charge notices.

However, if it’s an official police or council ticket, it will say so, and there is a completely different set of rules to deal with.

When to fight back
This is about unfair tickets. Landowners have a right to charge for and police proper parking. If you have broken those rules, and you think the ticket is not exorbitant, I’d urge you to pay up.

Yet private parking is unruly and largely unregulated. Even legit companies often sub-contract the running of their parking to dodgy third parties.

These tickets can be much costlier than those issued by local councils. There is unclear signage, and systems are designed to catch people for profit.

The British Parking Association (BPA) does have a code of practice for ticket issuing. It gives companies a lot of leeway, but still only 650 out of approximately 2,000 private parking firms are signed up.

They’ve no right to fine

The most important thing to understand is that these tickets are just invoices, a claim you broke a contract with the landowner. They have absolutely no right to fine you.

You may be asking “what contract?” Well, they argue it’s the one allowing you to park on their property. This assumes you had agreed to accept it, and if the signage was unclear, for example, that’s unlikely.

Ultimately, the only way they can force you to pay is via a court, and that’s rare.

How to fight unfair tickets

Anecdotal reports suggest most people taking on unfair private company parking tickets win. There are lots of successes in my web forum. Beating the cowboys is not an exact science, as there are no set regulations. However, here are some top tips:

● Don’t respond to tickets on the windscreen. If you get one of these, do not pay up, wait to see if they have legit access to the number plate database to get your address, and can thus follow up with a letter. If not, then you’ve no need to pay. After all, let them do the chasing! Reclaiming cash already paid is not easy; far easier to dispute it by not paying.

● Do gather evidence. However, if you get one of these tickets, then gather evidence of the problem. Use your phone camera to record poor signage, road markings or that you did nothing wrong.

● Were you driving? Unlike official parking tickets, when on private land, it is the driver, not the owner, who is liable. If you weren’t driving, you are not liable, and you have no need to say who was.

So if they post a ticket, simply write back stating that, as the owner, you are not liable for any costs. Do not worry, you are not under any obligation to state who was driving.

Hopefully that’ll get the message across, and they won’t contact you again. It’s best to do this in writing, so you have a record of what was said.

Do not be tempted to lie. This could land you in serious trouble in the unlikely event the case ever went to court, and witness statements or CCTV proved the opposite.

How to respond to a ticket
In most cases, not paying the unfair ticket is the right tactic though, of course, there are no guarantees.

Yet, if you get scared when letters demanding money or threatening court action come through the door, even though it’s mainly posturing, you may prefer to play it safe.

This means you simply pay the ticket and appeal the process. Yet be warned, doing this means you accede to the authority of the agency issuing the ticket, and once you’ve done that you are stuck within its protocols.

If you decide to withhold payment, you need to make the firm realise you’re going to be hard work to get the money from, and ultimately it’ll need to put in the time and expense of court action. Most simply won’t pursue it at this point, though their letters and tales may indicate otherwise. You may have to be a little thick skinned; some companies may call or write using pressure tactics.

Read more on this at www.moneysavingexpert.com/privateparking, where there are also free template letters.

    Last updated: 3:37pm, January 6 2010