Driver complaints about car park fine policies hit unprecedented levels

From disputes over ticketing times to mis-typed number plates, thousands of motorists say they are unfairly targeted

When Dorothea Matheson parked at a town centre car park, in Clarkston, East Renfrewshire, she typed her number plate into the ticket machine and paid the required fee. Two weeks later she received a demand for £60. Her offence was to enter her registration number with a letter O instead of a numeric 0. Despite the fact the two look almost indistinguishable, the parking operator, Smart Parking, declared that the ticket she had bought was invalid. It refused her appeal and she has now received a letter from a debt collection agency threatening court action unless she pays £160. “I wasn’t trying to evade payment. I simply made a genuine error,” says the retired receptionist. “This company acts as judge, jury and executioner.”

Matheson is among thousands of drivers who believe they have been unfairly targeted by companies which patrol privately owned car parks. Visitors to supermarkets, hospitals, airports and shopping malls have received demands for sums of up to three figures despite paying, because of misleading signs or a minor typo.

Citizens Advice Scotland reports that complaints about “over zealous” charges have reached an unprecedented level as companies seek to maximise profits. Trading Standards in Scotland has had to divert stretched funds into investigating what it says is “a surprisingly high number of complaints”.

It’s an industry that is, so far, unregulated. Anyone can set up as a “parking enforcement company” and, although those who sign up to an accredited trade body have to abide by its code of practice, it’s not mandatory to be a member. In 2012 the government established an independent appeals process for motorists in England and Wales, but in Scotland only the company that issues parking charges can adjudicate as to whether its decision is fair. Unsurprisingly, the verdict is usually “yes”.

Sales agent Ken Barbour is also being threatened with court action by Smart Parking’s debt collection agent unless he pays £160. He had paid for two hours parking and returned to his car in Inverness before the ticket expired. However, after entering the car park it had taken him 15 minutes to find a space and then he had to queue for the ticket. Cameras film drivers entering and exiting, and Smart Parking says those minutes are chargeable and that his ticket was therefore not valid.

“It seems that I’m being penalised for not buying my ticket before I parked in a space,” says Barbour. He argued his case via Smart Parking’s online appeals process but says he received no response.

Smart Parking, which declines to comment on individual cases, says that signs state that motorists will be charged for the full period that their vehicle is in the car park. But many motorists assume the clock only starts ticking from when they actually park.

Confusion is compounded by the fact that the ticket machines calculate the required parking time from the moment payment is made. Motorists assume that they have until the time stamped on the ticket, when they might have already unwittingly used up 10 minutes of their paid time finding a space. In order to use the system accurately, drivers are supposed to calculate how much time they want, including the time already spent inside the car park, which means they have to check the time they crossed the threshold and pay for an additional hour if it takes them over the tariff chosen.

Those who choose the option to pay at the end of a visit must recall the precise time they drove into the car park. A newly widowed 80-year-old was recently chased for £160 after underpaying by just 10p in a Perth car park that operates the system. Smart Parking insisted the charge should stand.

“Since the system changed from a simple pay-and-display, charges and complaints have skyrocketed,” says Murdo Fraser, MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife who is preparing a members’ bill to demand that private parking in Scotland be regulated. “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Smart Parking is using this system as a revenue raiser.”

Smart Parking, owned by the Australian group Car Parking Technologies, revealed earlier this year that 75% of its revenue comes from parking breach charges and that the number of notices doubled over the 12 months following the roll out of number plate recognition technology. It’s a lucrative business, too, for firms who rely on foot patrols to identify contraventions and who pay “wardens” a commission of up to £30 for every ticket issued .

Private parking firms cannot fine drivers like police and councils. Their demands are simply invoices for breach of contract and are governed by civil law. However, many firms try to blur the difference by calling them Parking Charge Notices (PCNs), similar to local authority Penalty Charge Notices (also known as PCNs), apeing the yellow windscreen tickets issued by local authorities and employing debt collection agencies to chase for non-payment.

In fact, debt collectors have no power to enforce payment or seize goods and many are unregulated sole traders. If a motorist refuses to pay up they can merely recommend that the parking company takes court action.

Given the small sums at stake, fewer than 5% of cases make it that far. Indeed, in Scotland and Northern Ireland they cannot do so unless the parking firm can prove who was behind the wheel at the time. In England and Wales they can pursue the registered keeper of the vehicle as listed on DVLA records (see box).

For the past five years English and Welsh drivers whose appeal is rejected by a parking company have been able to take their case to one of two independent appeals services – POPLA operated by the British Parking Association (BPA), or the Independent Appeals Service (IAS) run by the International Parking Community (IPC) – provided the parking firm is a member. The codes of practice include unambiguous signs in the car park and a reasonable grace period for drivers who overstay.

However, critics question how independent these appeals services are given they are funded by member parking companies, and that while POPLA is outsourced to Ombudsman Services, the IPC’s scheme is run in-house. In April, the BPA suspended the Independent Scrutiny Board which the government had asked it to set up to ensure its appeals were fair, because its rival was not required to fund one.

Since the IPC, which does not allow motorists to respond to evidence against them, tends to uphold around 20% of driver complaints compared to the BPA’s 50%, parking companies began defecting to the former in the hopes of a favourable outcome. The IPC has failed to respond to a request for a comment.

The government, meanwhile, declines to say whether it plans to force the appeals services to appoint an independent auditor. “Ministers are carefully reviewing the case for reform of the private parking sector and further details will be released in due course,” the Department for Communities and Local Government tells The Observer.


In Scotland and Northern Ireland you can choose to ignore a parking notice. Private firms can only pursue the driver, not the registered owner of the car, so if you refuse to identify the driver there is not much they can do. Debt collectors, however officious sounding, have no enforcement powers.

In England and Wales the registered keeper can be held liable under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 if the driver is not identified.

For a convincing argument, check the codes of practice of the relevant trade association to see if the parking company breached any of the terms.

Websites for the British Motorists’ Protection Association and the Parking Cowboys contain detailed advice and assistance on what you should do in which country. Meanwhile, the consumer champion Which? offers drivers an appeals letter template.


Anna Tims

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Paying my Dartford Crossing fine has become a French farce
I couldn’t pay the automated toll as I was on my way home to France

Anna Tims

13, Dec, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Stick to the letter of car-parking rules – or get a fine
Most motorists can’t tell the difference between n O and 0, but that counts for nothing when it comes to charges

Anna Tims

16, Mar, 2018 @1:53 PM

Article image
Residents face £60 ticket as road is turned into private car park
Anger in wake of more cases that expose injustice of unregulated parking enforcement

Anna Tims

28, May, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Toll and trouble: Dartford cameras fine drivers for journeys they didn’t make
Dartford Crossing’s number plate recognition cameras repeatedly identify the wrong vehicles, resulting in hefty penalties

Anna Tims

08, May, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
No insurance claim against me, so why am I a marked driver?
I simply reported a scrape to a bumper – but the premium has almost doubled

Anna Tims

06, Jul, 2023 @7:30 AM

Article image
The ultra-low emission zone cost me an ultra-high fine
I was driving a compliant car on a visit from Germany, and have been sent five penalty charge notices totalling more than €1,700

Anna Tims

22, Mar, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
Think you paid the congestion charge? That could be a £160 fine anyway
Despite solid evidence that drivers have paid the £11.50 fee online in advance, they are still receiving penalty charge notices

Anna Tims

25, Aug, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
I got a £50 ticket for driving into a car park after an accident
I pulled into the nearest place to recover from the shock, but was slapped with a parking fine

Anna Tims

24, Oct, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Some tough lessons about how to pay for a driving school
Many claim they act as an ‘agent only’, so you hand over the money to the instructor

Anna Tims

12, Oct, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Car hire firms’ double whammy strikes at both the young and the old
Readers were left out of pocket when car hire firms failed to honour their bookings, one because he was old and another because she was young

Anna Tims

10, Jan, 2018 @7:00 AM