I had been cross enough about having to go to Sennen Cove. Aside from the fact that I don’t care for the place — what is the point of a Cornish beach if the sand is too coarse-grained for sandcastles? — I resented the fact that I would not even be able to park near the place I hated. The car park on the beach is full from nine in the morning; I would have to drive up to the town — which is so far away that some of the houses aren’t even second homes — and walk. Furiously I bought a ticket, chucked it in the car and marched down the cliff to the beach. When I returned to find a parking fine on the windscreen, I was, I admit, not in the holiday spirit.
I assumed that sending a scan of the ticket to Armtrac, the parking company, would resolve matters. The ticket machine printed the last three letters of my registration number, so I could show it was the ticket I had bought — or that there was only a one in 13,824 chance that it was someone else’s ticket. Something like that.
I went down a rabbit hole in the research on that one. There were 24 possibilities for each letter (I and Q not being used), so you would expect the odds to be 24 cubed; but that is to forget about the combinations which the DVLA does not issue — ASS, SEX and JEW are some, as are some that are unpronounceable profanities in Welsh. I could not find the full list — which would bring the odds down slightly. But that would assume the cars were randomly distributed between geographical areas…
Not that it mattered. Armtrac replied it was irrelevant that I had bought a ticket as I had a ‘duty of care’ to display it. (This is the part at which a barrister chum, to whom I related the story, started laughing — tortious and contractual liability are two different things.) Armtrac insisted that its ‘PCN’ — parking companies always call them Parking Charge Notices (PCNs), so that you mistake them for Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs), which are issued by local authorities — should be paid within 28 days, or it would be passed to its solicitors, BW Legal.
My wife told me I should pay the £100 and forget about it. Instead, I spent a year fighting. BW Legal would send letters; I would send another photocopy of the ticket. It would argue that ‘PCNs are a [sic] legitimate business interests’, and I would provide a link to the 2015 judgment it was misquoting. I spent an inordinate amount of time on online forums which give advice on defending claims. The posters there all knew BW Legal very well. And vice versa — BW Legal issued a press release condemning frequent forum users Coupon-Mad, Bargepole and Lamilad by name, warning that they were legally unqualified representatives who relied on template pleadings which were of no assistance to the court. (This was after a judge had decided that a case could not be struck out for abuse of process because there was no evidence that the parking company knew it was inflated and unlawful — quite the win for BW Legal.)
The forums did explain one thing which had confused me: why BW Legal pursued hopeless claims. The business model is that a parking company offers to enforce the parking rules for a landowner, often for free. It takes the reputational risk as well as the income from the PCNs. It then uses a volume processor, like BW Legal, which has, by some accounts, a million claims on the go at any one time, to pursue everyone who doesn’t pay. Some do — the letters contain enough legal jargon to scare most people — and if they don’t, the worst result is losing the court fees for issuing proceedings, which is cheaper, in the end, than having someone with a legal qualification deciding whether it is worth pursuing. You might think this was outsourcing the job of paralegal to Her Majesty’s courts — but, as we know, it’s only abuse of process if you know the claim’s inflated and unlawful.
So I was pretty confident when I attended the hearing. BW Legal’s solicitor, a Mr Lowey — according to the county court judgment, although that must be a typographical error as there is no one on the roll of solicitors with that name — cross-examined by reading out the car park’s noticeboard very slowly. I humbly drew the court’s attention to section 62(4) and Schedule 2 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015. I won.