Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A helping hand for the motorist

A timely reminder given that the word behind the scenes is that councils are going to up the ante when it comes to parking fine revenue in order to make up any shortfall in their budgets.

A helping legal hand for the motorist
Daily Telegraph
4th April 2010

Philip Johnston argues why it's important to keep fighting when you think you've been unfairly penalised under one of many poorly administered or disproportionate motoring laws.

In Motoring a fortnight ago, David Williams detailed the avalanche of laws bearing down on drivers – from decriminalised parking offences to road pricing and pernickety new requirements like SORNs (statutory off-road notifications). But he could not have imagined in his wildest dreams that it might become illegal to smoke in your own family car.

OK, so far this is just an idea put forward by some very eminent doctors and has few supporters at Westminster. But had you suggested 10 years ago that smoking would be banned in pubs you would have been thought slightly mad, so don't rule it out in the next 10 years.

The aim of this law would be to prevent children being exposed to smoke in confined spaces; but because of the difficulties of seeing if there are kids in the vehicle, all cars would need to be smoke-free zones.

Of course, some privately owned vehicles already are smoke-free under the existing ban. If they are a place of work, such as a taxi or the cab of a lorry which is part of a fleet, then smoking is forbidden.

There may be an argument on safety grounds for banning smoking because it is a distraction from driving; but so is putting on a CD, reaching for a sweet or adjusting the wing mirror. Where do you stop?

It is all a question of proportion – and, as far as the motorist is concerned, the Government has already gone too far – though this is not entirely the fault of Whitehall. Local councils are culpable for the expansion of parking zones into leafy suburbs where they have no purpose other than to raise money.

The 1984 Road Traffic Regulation Act makes it clear that charges must not be levied to raise revenue, but only to make appropriate traffic-management provision. Yet most councils ignore this. According to the Local Government Finance Statistics 2009, councils last year made £1.3 billion from on- and off-street parking, and spent about £820 million on maintaining and enforcing the regime. So the surplus revenue from parking was more than £500 million.

Last year, more than nine million parking tickets were issued – up from 5.7 million in six years.

Parking laws in this country are unjust and often incompetently administered. Yet who speaks up for the harassed, frustrated and angry motorist who feels powerless to do anything about it? Certainly not the political parties because they run the councils that make the money.

There is a coalition of motoring organisations which recently published a Manifesto on the Reform of Parking and Traffic Enforcement calling for the parties to commit to tightening the regulations to ensure that parking charges and penalties are properly and legally applied. This is backed by the London Motorists Action Group (lmag.org.uk), the Drivers Alliance (driversalliance.org.uk) and The Motorists' Legal Challenge Fund (motoristslegal challenge.co.uk)

The decriminalisation of parking, which began in London in 1991 and allowed local authorities to take over parking enforcement, has added to the sense of grievance among those fined for infractions because the penalties are often out of all proportion to the offence and there is no means of pursuing justice through the courts.

But again help is at hand: ParkingAppeals.co.uk specialises in fighting such cases – and winning them, too. Did you know, for instance, that a ticket in a CPZ is invalid unless there are signs indicating a restriction at all entrances to the zone? You would be amazed how many local councils fail to follow the letter of the law, as they must.

For other motoring offences that still fall under the criminal law, like speeding, there is an option to go to court. But who will risk it when the Justice Ministry brings in plans so that defendants who can afford it have to pay their own legal costs? Or why go to the small claims court to fight an unfair clamping by a bunch of roadside cowboys when it can take 18 months to get a hearing?

But it may be worth the hassle – and there are practical guides to negotiating the maze of motoring laws, the best of which is probably (for England and Wales) Fight a Motoring Ticket: How to Claim Against Parking, Speeding and Other Motoring Offences by Jeanette Miller and Jonathan Egan. This is essentially a self-help kit explaining the legal procedures involved and the best way to maximise your chances of success. Certainly, if we all give up at the first hurdle then the tyranny will spread.

If they are going to quote the law at us, we should make sure they are observing it as well. If you are fined simply because your parking ticket has fallen off the windscreen, take time to check that the penalty notice was legally issued, properly worded, accurately dated and does not charge extra for processing credit-card payments. Often the authorities get it wrong. Don't let them play fast and loose with the laws they expect the rest of us to follow.

Philip Johnston is the author of Bad Laws (Constable) £8.99 available from books.telegraph.co.uk.

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