Streetwise has won a victory against a controversial parking company. It comes after Sarah Elsmore was clobbered with an eye-watering £155 penalty charge despite paying to park at Matalan’s Portsmouth Station Street store.
At the beginning of May Sarah decided to stop off at the car park to catch up with her bank holiday shopping.
Having parked there since the Matalan store opened, she was more than familiar with all the parking arrangements.
But what she didn’t realise was that a new parking operator, Smart Parking Ltd, had installed cameras to record cars going in and out.
Sarah says she didn’t give it a second thought when she punched her car registration number into the pay meter.
When the confirmation of the number came up on the eye-level screen together with a request for payment, she had no hesitation inserting the £1.50 parking fee.
However, just a week or so later she was shocked to find a parking charge notice waiting for her on the doormat demanding a payment of £85.
It insisted she’d parked without permission.
Sarah had been snared by Smart Parking’s 32-line maze of ‘small print’ contract law jargon and terms for using the car park, one of which stipulates that motorists must enter a correct registration number.
The contract had been breached because she’d made a simple mistake.
She’d entered a zero instead of an O when she put her car’s number into the electronic payment meter.
Fortunately she’d kept the machine receipt and, to her chagrin, it revealed the mistake. The zero had been crossed through on the printout to distinguish it from an O.
Sara had in effect unwittingly paid Smart Parking to breach its contract to park.
Had she been warned of the error on the screen before she went to pay, she would have corrected it, or chosen not to park there.
The dumfounded Waterlooville hairdresser knew she’d returned well within the allotted parking time, so immediately dashed off an appeal letter to the firm explaining what happened.
A furious Sara said: ‘I wrote them a very quick letter thinking it was just a formality, but I didn’t hear anything. I assumed as they hadn’t got back to me everything was sorted.
‘The next thing I knew I had a letter from a debt collector, Debt Recovery Plus, who insisted when I phoned them it was best to pay as people who had tried to take them to court about the charge couldn’t win.
‘I was told it wouldn’t help trying to ring Smart Parking about it because they’d already handed the debt over.’
Sara later learned she should have received a letter from Smart Parking turning down her appeal, together with a verification code so that she could escalate it to POPLA, the independent appeals service.
When she told the debt collectors the proper appeal procedures hadn’t been followed, they refused to listen.
It sparked a fruitless, convoluted three-month battle with the firm, which added further charges to the alleged debt to bring the total to more than £150.
An exhausted Sara appealed to Streetwise for clarification of her rights after she finally capitulated and paid up under protest.
Her experience was mirrored by two other readers of the paper who received similar demands for making the very same simple data entry mistake at Smart Parking’s locations in Portsmouth and Havant.
We decided to investigate Sara’s complaint and soon discovered she’d been trapped in an Alice in Wonderland situation where she couldn’t know she’d entered the wrong information into the parking meter until after she’d paid to park.
We believed it had the potential to be significantly unfair and misleading and open to challenge.
We tried entering correct and wrong car registration numbers at both their car parks.
On each occasion the machine’s on-screen display confirmed the numbers we’d put in, but failed to distinguish between the correct and wrong one. It simply requested payment.
Initially Smart Parking gave us a bland, but unequivocal statement about Sara’s farcical experience.
A spokesperson told us there were 15 signs that clearly highlighted motorists were required to enter their correct registration number when using the payment machine.
But we were not impressed and asked them to elaborate.
Motorists were understandably turned off attempting to wade through the almost 400 words on their car park signs looking for a list of contraventions. They just didn’t read them.
We argued it wasn’t the number of signs that were important, but the prominence of the warning given to the motorist.
Why, we wondered, wasn’t it displayed on the screen together with the registration number prior to payment?
To hit motorists with a swingeing contravention charge when the data they’d entered was reproduced on a screen prior to payment and appeared to be correct was below the belt.
People were likely to be significantly misled.
It was absurd that a motorist would knowingly consent to accepting a £1.50 parking offer that would result in a hefty £85 fine.
Following our month-long extended intervention on Sara’s behalf, Smart Parking promptly changed its tune.
In a further statement to Streetwise, a spokesperson said: ‘As a gesture of goodwill we cancelled the charge and made a full refund to Mrs Elsmore almost two weeks ago.’
A stunned and grateful Sara confirmed the money was back in her account.
She felt vindicated that her protracted parking fine battle and months of wrangling with the firm had ended in such a positive result.
Readers who have been slapped with a fine by Smart Parking in similar circumstances are advised to write to the company and request a refund.
Consumer protection regulations were introduced in 2008 to ban commercial practices that were unfair.