The Guardian recently reported in their Consumer Champion column the story of a shopper who had been charged £70 for overstaying at a 90-minute car Aldi car park. Although I have some sympathies with the amount of this charge, the report didn’t tell the whole story of car parking charges… Are you sitting comfortably? It’s neither a short nor a simple tale.
Signs are Contracts
Story: Once upon a time, a driver parked her car at a car park.
Analysis: In doing so, she (unwittingly) entered into a contract with the car park operator. By leaving her car in the car park, she was taken to have read the rules and accepted them. As the British Parking Association states in its 2013 Code of Practice:
any driver who uses a private car park, with permission, does so under a contract with the car park owner/operator
The Code also explains what a parking contract is:
the agreement between the driver and the owner or operator of the car park, allowing the driver to park their vehicle. The parking contract will include terms and conditions covering, among other things, the parking tariff fees for parking and the parking charges if the driver breaches the contract
If you decide the leave your car in the car park, then you have accepted those terms and conditions and should comply with them.
1st Moral of the Story: if you want to know the fees for parking and the charges for breach, you need to read the sign.
Parking = Agreeing Terms
Story: The problem was that our driver had a lot of shopping to do. It took her over 90 minutes to complete her shop and she left the car park 15 minutes outside the agreed wait time.
Analysis: Under English law, the parties can enter into a contract on whatever terms they like. Only occasionally will the courts intervene because those terms are unfair. You need to agree to both the tariff fees (free parking is always a winner) AND the charges (sometimes called penalties or fines) which you can be liable for if you:
- break the terms and conditions of a parking contract
- trespass by parking without permission
- overstay your welcome.
2nd Moral of the Story: if you don’t like the rules, don’t park in that car park.
The Story Continues…
The driver received a rather unpleasant letter from the car park operator asking her to pay £70 for ‘overstaying her welcome’ by just 15 minutes. This lady driver was not to be dissuaded. She wrote to the Guardian in these tones:
Imagine the shock when I received a demand for £70 from ParkingEye… The language and tenor of the letter were strong, promising to pursue me for payment. I will not pay this outrageous charge…
She had three possible routes to challenge the charges:
- Challenging Charges as Penalties: Under English law, the car parking charges could be challenged if they are a penalty. The Code of Conduct says a charge for breach of contract: “must be based on the genuine pre-estimate of loss.” The phrase ‘genuine pre-estimate of loss’ comes from a 100-year old case and has long been considered the correct ‘formula’ for agreeing compensation for a breach of contract. Earlier this year, Mr Beavis challenged his £85 charge for overstaying his welcome in a 2-hour car park. The Supreme Court decided in favour of ParkingEye (this is not mentioned in the Guardian’s column). No go for this driver either!
- Challenging Charges as Unfair: As noted, every driver can avoid the charge by sticking to the terms of the car park. The Code of Practice states that “We would not expect [such a charge] to be more than £100“. The Supreme Court said that the charge was “higher than the penalty that a motorist would have had to pay for overstaying in an on-street parking space or a local authority car park. But a local authority would not necessarily allow two hours of free parking, and in any event the difference is not substantial. The charge is less than the maximum above which members of the BPA must justify their charges under their code of practice.” They decided that a charge of £85 was fair. A charge of £70 will also be fair (even if morally outrageous) so no chance here.
- Challenging Charges Due to Bad Signs: ParkingEye are not the only car park operator to use unclear signs at their car parks. The Plain Language Commission set out the obligations of the operator to write their signs in plain language: “consumers should be able to read and understand terms before becoming bound by them. The OFT says jargon-free language is of no value to consumers unless it is in legible print and they have the opportunity to read it when they need to. Most people take ‘legible’ to mean legible to the typical user – in this case someone driving in to a car park at about 10mph and seeing the sign from 6–7 metres away…” In the Beavis case, the court said where the car parking terms are “prominently displayed and contained no concealed pitfalls or traps” then this is enough. Also not likely to help this driver.
3rd Moral of the Story: the court will not release you from your agreement with the car park operator … although publicity can put pressure on the shop to pay or withdraw the charge.
Become a Sign Superhero: take the car parking language quiz to see if you can make head or tail of some parking signs… if you can’t then stick to public transport!