The Right to Know

March 19, 2007

Believe it or not, but councils are doing you a favour by including a couple of smudgy photographs on your PCN. There is no direct requirement in law for them to include any evidence at all.

Section 4 of the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Act 2003 only says: (8) A penalty charge notice under this section must – (a) state – (i) the grounds on which the council…believe that the penalty charge is payable…

So, the standard wording of “Vehicle XYZ123 was observed entering and stopping a box junction when prohibited at wherever on whenever“, followed by the bit about the whole sorry incident being observed and recorded for posterity on video is really all they need to state.

The similarities between the wording of a PCN and the classic blackmail demand of “pay up and you can have the negatives/tape” is remarkable. As I recall, in the movies, the blackmail victim will usually demand to see some of the pictures as proof that the threat is genuine before paying up.

Given that the council is accusing you of wrongdoing, surely you have a right to see the full evidence before deciding whether to challenge or to pay up. The anger you feel after reading the PCN results mainly from the unsubstantiated nature of the allegation. You stare at the tiny, blurry photos and think “Well, that doesn’t prove anything!”

Comments have been made by PATAS adjudicators that councils would save on appeals if they presented comprehensive evidence on the PCN. Presumably they would also save on representations (the first stage of a challenge). As I see it, that would take up to 5 photographs which would fit on one side of A4:

  1. Vehicle outside the box, about to enter, showing the prevailing state of the exit.
  2. Vehicle entering the box, showing the prevailing state of the exit.
  3. Vehicle stopped in the box, showing the stationary traffic causing the obstruction.
  4. Vehicle in the same position as (3), 5 seconds or more later.
  5. Close-up of number plate (if not legible in (1)-(4) )

Having said that, the primary evidence is not the still photographs but a video recording which must show the whole incident from just before you entered the box up to the point where you (allegedly) committed the contravention.

No one has formulated any hard and fast rules although most councils do issue written guidance to their camera operators. A distillation from various sources seems to suggest that the following points generally apply:

  1. The video recording must show your car just before it enters the box.
  2. At the time of entry you must also be able to see the exit side of the box, and be able to determine whether the exit is clear.
  3. There must be no doubt that your car has stopped in the box, and generally less than 5 seconds does not count. (De minimis non curat lex)
  4. If the camera moves around while you are stopped the evidence is questionable (If the camera is moving, how can it be certain your vehicle is not moving).
  5. The number plate must be readable at some point in the recording.
  6. The video must be good quality, in colour and run smoothly.
  7. Lighting and weather must be favourable.

You are legally entitled to view the evidence and, by rights the council should freeze the clock while they arrange a viewing. There is no consistent London-wide policy relating to your access to the video evidence. Some councils will send you a copy on demand, others will charge you £10 for a copy (what a cheek!) and in some cases you have to make an appointment to view in a high security environment.

Incidentally I know of one ‘victim’ who has been waiting two months to view a video!

A logical move would be to make the evidence available on demand on the internet like so many police forces do with speeding cameras. I am reliably informed that this is under consideration, but the speed of development is constrained by time, money and available expertise. Issues of security and data protection also prevail.

In the mean time, forget about still photos. Demand to see the video, at your convenience, and do not pay for a copy.

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Vague Locus

March 8, 2007

“We’re not lost. We’re locationally challenged.” (John M. Ford)

I don’t think the expression ‘Vague Locus’ is an official legal term, but it is meant to convey the meaning of ‘uncertain position’ or ‘imprecise location’.

When a local authority sends you a PCN for a traffic contravention they are supposed to state “the grounds on which the council or, as the case may be, Transport for London believe that the penalty charge is payable with respect to the vehicle;” To put it simply, what you were doing that was wrong, and where you were doing it.

I lot of councils put a couple of small blurry pictures on the PCN and many of them just state the location of the contravention as the road, for instance Green Lanes. For those of you that don’t know North London, Green Lanes is one of those roads that goes on for miles and miles – and yes, it does contain many box junctions. If you drive up and down it each day, then you may be able to identify the precise location from the pictures. If you are a stranger to the area, then you won’t have a clue where you were caught on camera. So if you don’t know where you were meant to be, how can you remember what you did? How can you decide whether to challenge the PCN?

There have been a number of successful appeals that were allowed on the principle of ‘Vague Locus’, so it was one of the points we used to challenge a recent case against Islington Council for a PCN issued in Liverpool Road, N1. (You can read the appeal document here.) Of the many points raised in the appeal, this was the one that the adjudicator chose to home in on to invalidate the PCN.

One of the limitations of the appeals system is that, unlike the Courts, a decision made by one adjudicator is not binding on another. As a result the system is very random and a lot depends on which side of bed the adjudicator got out of on the morning in question. However, presentation of past appeals illustrating the repeated application of the same principle is something that cannot be ignored by the adjudicator.

There are now a number of cases that tend to establish the principle of Vague Locus when it comes to yellow box junctions. After all it is a box junction, so surely the location should be specified as (e.g.) “Junction of Yellow Brick Road and Mean Street, NE9”.

If your PCN does not specify the location precicely, challenge it.