Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Shady Edge Of The Law

The whole point of the Law is to have guidelines in which we all live but its essence is that we have a right to be proven to have transgressed. The cornerstone of our justice system is that we are innocent in the eyes of the law until proven guilty, and that each of us has the right to some sort of defence.

However, at the edge of the law, there are several 'offences' which are not governed by the legal system - in fact, they are not even administered by the legal system. In these cases, you are simply guilty and the process of appeal against such a 'conviction' is made to be so onerous as to be futile.

I refer to the whole area governing parking, clamping and speeding. I could cite many more examples, but it is the basic principle that courts cannot be bothered to get involved in the volume of alleged offences and so simply transfers the onus to other administrative methods and effectively allows the Law to be interpreted, even hijacked and rewritten, by a bunch of third parties, few of whom are qualified in such matters.

I would like to point out that I have never had my car clamped or towed away but I have a lot of sympathy for those who have. I have heard of people who have had their car clamped for minor transgressions and I have heard of private individuals or companies who have clamped cars who have parked on their property where they have taken little or no effort to forewarn potential transgressors, and then charged fees for release which are purely arbitrary. These are not 'cowboy clampers' that the RAC Foundation wants to get some regulation on, but effectively anybody can clamp cars the way the Law is structured today. Even I can.

The Woolly Rules

A restaurant local to me has a small car park with a sign saying 'Clamping is in operation'. It doesn't say what for, is the first obvious matter. However, many cars park in there and some get clamped and some don't. The some that don't are people known to the restaurateur and have bought meals previously, allegedly. Those that get clamped, are seen as people who just use the facility to go to the shops. However, the notice does not make clear the rules nor does it give any time limits for unauthorised parking, nor does it specify fees for release, nor does it give a number to call for release or to ask questions, nor does it have an appeals service, nor does it make clear that if you have used the restaurant in the past that you may be entitled (at the discretion of the restaurateur) to park when not visiting the restaurant. Then there are those collecting take-aways - it is a potential mine field in the eyes of the Law, but it is beyond the Law.

The loose interpretation of the rules means that a car may be clamped solely if the restaurateur feels like it and it does not take account of the rights of the disabled, as a for instance. If you asked the owner of the restaurant, they would give you a whole load guff and not be able to explain any of the rules at all - it is basically down to their own interpretation, whenever and however they fell like. Then comes the final twist - they are not the landowners. They lease the land from an absent landlord, who has not given them any authorisation to clamp.

The whole business of parking in the country is BIG money. In St Albans, an army of uniformed wardens from a third party company roam the streets and hand out fines liberally with scant regard for rights and none for logic. As a for instance, I was playing golf at Batchwood Park municipal course one day last year and the car park was empty except for about 5 cars, one of which was mine. A warden on a scooter arrived and picked on a car which was parked in a long line of empty parking berths and one of its wheels overlapped the white lines defining the parking berth. Even though this car posed no issue to any other car and did not even stop someone parking in the next booth, the warden proceeded to issue a ticket and take a photo. I was amazed as it is a good mile or so from the town centre so I walked over with my camera phone and took a photo of the warden on the process of doing this and of the surrounding car park. I then asked him why he was issuing a ticket.

The response was that the car was 'illegally parked'. A sign in the adjoining car park warned that this was an 'offence' and is a rule 'known in St Albans' - there was no account taken that the car owner may be a visitor from another town playing golf and so not be aware of the 'St. Albans local Law'. I asked if the warden knew that this car was the original offender and was only parked this way as a result of another car parking 'illegally' previously which forced all other cars to park wrongly but had now left the car park. In such a case, the warden explained, all cars would be parked illegally and so be fined. By extension, if a single car causes a pile up, all cars who crash as a result are liable to prosecution - he said I was talking rubbish. He also radioed to his HQ as my taking pictures of him was deemed 'harassment' and therefore his company would bring criminal charges against me. I asked if, because a single car parked illegally, no other cars should park in an entire car park because all of them were liable to be fined - he said he did not make the rules.

The incident ended when the police arrived and gave me a warning for 'assault' which actually was the act of taking a photo of the warden, even though by this time there were several witnesses to the entire conversation who piped up and said I had only taken a two photos. St Albans wardens are a protected species indeed.

But the point here is that the rules are made up by a faceless body somewhere in the bowels of St Albans Council. It is not my only run-in - my wife was booked while waiting for me in an empty car park which had one other car in and her ticket ran out at 6pm and she was booked while sitting in the car waiting for me at 6.02pm - the warden had waited in the car park for her ticket to expire while the rest of St Albans was snarled in traffic as people parked wherever they liked while this chap picked on a lone female in a dark car park. Witnesses to the incident sent letters on my wife's behalf and there was not even a letter in response.

You could go on for hours on this subject and even start on the incredible decree that security cameras in town centres can now be used to spot parking offences rather than for use in protecting us against violent crime, assault and terrorism. Surveillance in this country is now on the hands of muppets with vendettas and book balancers.

Getting back to the point, clampers are only part of the problem. The issue of parking and speeding fines is one of the areas of law where the right to legal process is foregone and you are guilty with little recourse to prove innocence. In fact, the only way to prove innocence is to pay large legal fees as the appeals process is not a legally defined one - you effectively have to 'sue' the ticket issuer to get a legal hearing.

The article I have referenced makes a reference itself to the Human Rights Act of 1998 which states that all of us are entitled to a legal process no matter what the offence. The Human Rights Act has got a bad press because it allows mass murderers and serial offenders the right to challenge their convictions or give them some sort of right to a fair trial when everyone just wants to see the victims get a similar right. In the case of speeding and parking, all such rights are waived and fines, which are more than the legal ones handed out out for theft and assault, can be handed out liberally with no real recourse to the Law.

I understand there has to be a way for all 'small offences' to be dealt with and to clog up the legal system but I do not believe it should be carte blanche for small Hitlers to make a shed load of money. Speeding fines in this country are handed out at the rate of £250m per day while parking tickets and fines amount to a similar sum. Eager council and police officials see the extension of such fining systems to make money and so the rules governing the whole thing become economically driven, not trying to solve the problem of road safety or how many cars can be parked.

One day, a bright spark lawyer will go pro bono after one fine too far and test this whole grey area of the law to destruction. I am in no way intelligent enough to do so myself but I am intelligent enough to know we are all being taken for a ride. And, currently, there is not a thing we can do about it.

Congestion Charge

As a final point on all this. London Congestion Charge which itself seems to have done little to rid the capital of its traffic problems is an unfair system, administered in a way so that maximum money is made. Not only is the call centre governing the system in Coventry (no jobs for London) and administered by Capita who are making millions out of it, but it is unfair. My wife can travel in a car with more than one person in it which makes it cheaper than using trains. She parks 30 yards inside the zone and then walks 500 yds to her office. She then leaves London after the CC has ended which makes it a long working day and outside the legal hours governing her work which she does not get paid for. If she is 1 minute late parking her car then she gets a full fine. If she pays the £8 or fine, then she has entered the system for just 1 minute while a car that pays £8 or a fine can drive around London during the whole day causing congestion and polluting the air. Naturally, a 'pay as you go' scheme would be too expensive for Capita to design and administer, so we get a system wholly unfair.

I had hoped Boris Johnson would have done something about it but cash speaks louder than sense and fairness in these modern times.

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