Evening Standard, 2 November 2000
‘How my £30 parking ticket turned into a legal bill for £303 and a visit from the bailiffs’
MONICA PORTER thought she had paid her parking fine. Her credit card statement said so. But that didn’t convince Westminster Council. The county court order made her feel like a criminal – and very angry.
I’M sitting in my flat in Maida Vale, waiting for the bailiffs to arrive. I’ve been warned. A final notice has been sent. I haven’t paid my debt and any time now there will be a knock on the door and my possessions will be seized. Goodbye telly, so long cooker and washing machine. Oh, that it should have come to this.
But, contrary to what you might think, I am not some dodgy character who has overspent on credit cards, refused to pay back loans or reneged on hire purchase agreements. This is all about a £30 parking ticket issued by Westminster Council. Which I actually paid in full. Fifteen months ago.
This sorry saga began back in the summer of 1999 É Like any Londoner with a car, I get parking tickets occasionally. Believe me, it ain’t hard. But after the usual curses, I always grit my teeth and pay up. Because if you don’t, the £30 goes up to £60 and then it goes up to £90 and before you know it you have to remortgage your house, and it’s just not worth the hassle.
On 2 July last year, when I got a ticket in St John’s Wood for outstaying my welcome on a parking meter by a couple of minutes (the Post Office queue was slower than expected), I seethed for a while and put the ticket in my in-tray from where it glared at me for a few days.
But by 8 July I had steeled myself for the inevitable and called Parktel, paying for the ticket with my Mastercard. That, so I thought, was the end of the matter and I threw the offending ticket away.
It was with some surprise that I received a notice from the council some weeks later, saying that the fine for my “unpaid” ticket of 2 July had increased to £60 and I should pay it at once. By now, of course, I had my Mastercard statement for July, and reading down the column of payments, saw that the parking fine duly appeared on it as having been paid on the 8th. I called Parktel to rectify their error, but they instructed me to contact another section of the council.
If you’ve ever called the council about anything, you will know only too well that it’s a huge bureaucratic machine with umpteen departments and you are passed on relentlessly from one faceless, nameless penpusher to another. I eventually explained the problem to somebody who asked me to put it in writing and enclose a photocopy of the Master-card statement. This I did, although I was annoyed at having to spend my time sorting out their mistake.
Hearing nothing back from the council, I assumed they had the grace to admit their administrative cock-up, and would now leave me alone to get on with the rest of my life.
AND so I did É until July of this year, when, out of the blue and to my amazement, I received an “order for recovery of an unpaid penalty charge” from Northampton County Court. In bold black letters it informed me that the “unpaid” parking ticket of 2 July, 1999 had been registered as a debt in the court, and that if I did nothing a warrant could be issued and a bailiff would call at my address to remove possessions which would be sold to pay off the money I owed – which had now risen to £95, including a £5 court registration fee.
It went on to state (in a particularly scary-looking bit in red) that it was now too late for me to query this fine, and that Westminster Council would not enter into any correspondence with me about it.
According to the court I could do one of two things: pay the charge in full within 21 days, or complete the enclosed statutory declaration and send it back to them.
I certainly had no intention of paying a penny, out of principle. As for being threatened with bailiffs as though I were some miscreant, well, to put it bluntly, it made me really angry. The declaration form contained a list of three possible (and possibly acceptable) reasons for refusing to pay.
You could tick the box next to the one which applied. The first was that you had never received the ticket to begin with. The second was that you had contested it to the local authority and did not receive a rejection notice. The third was that you had appealed to the Parking Adjudicator against the local authority’s rejection of your “representation” and had had no response.
All excuses for not paying. But none of them applied to me, as I had paid and had pointed it out to the council long ago.
But OK. I would go through it all once more. Perhaps this time I’d be able to penetrate that thick wall of public sector bureaucracy and make them understand. The whole affair had taken on almost surreal quality.
The word “Kafkaesque” sprang to mind É To file the court’s statutory declaration, it had to be signed before a commissioner for oaths (eg, a solicitor), a county court officer or Justice of the Peace. So, together with that old Mastercard statement, I took it along to a solicitor friend I have known for 25 years. Robert is a senior civil servant these days, with an office high up in a Docklands tower block.
To accompany the declaration, we set out the precise details of the case in a letter, attaching to it another photocopy of the Mastercard statement. Robert endorsed these documents, which were “certified as exhibits” in my declaration – it sounded as if I were already in the witness stand – and the form was duly “sworn” as instructed.
We sent the whole shebang off to the court in Northampton. Robert assured me that I would hear no more from them. Ha.
A fortnight later the documents were returned to me with a brief, blunt notification: “Your statutory declaration has been rejected as it is not made on any of the three grounds stated on the order for recovery of an unpaid penalty charge.”
In other words, I could have made a stock excuse for not paying, but explaining that I had paid – in a sworn declaration signed before a commissioner for oaths – was no good. I didn’t fit into any of the little “boxes”.
ON 13 October I received a letter from a debt recovery service based in Surrey telling me that unless I paid £106.75 (including their £11.75 fee) by the 21st, they would enforce a “distress warrant” against me, sending a bailiff. “Attendance to remove goods, including motor vehicles, will cost in the region of £80, plus a further substantial sum for actual removal.” They added that my possessions would be disposed of at auction and were unlikely to yield the replacement value.
Ten days later they sent a final notice, in pink. This time they gave me 48 hours to comply, and totted up the various costs against me should they have to execute the warrant, which now included the auctioneer’s fee.
They amounted to £257.98. Plus VAT.
You can understand why I’m a bit jumpy when the doorbell goes.
Despite the repeated threats to take my possessions – and, as a single mother living alone with my son, I admit I find it all unsettling – I know I’m lucky. I’m a journalist and can sit down and write an article about it. And perhaps when this story appears the council will be shamed into clearing up this mess, because the one thing they do understand is lousy publicity.
But I wonder what the man-in-the-street would do in a case like this.
Worn down by the drawn-out persecution, and with the bailiff about to descend, would he just pay the non-existent “debt” and have done with it?