Groundhog Day

June 4, 2008

“Everyone rises to their level of incompetence.” (Laurence J. Peter – The Peter Principle)

You have to believe me if I say that I am not deliberately conducting a campaign against Ealing Council. It’s just that the examples of their apparent incompetence are legion. The tragic consequence of this pointless bureaucratic incompetence is that it can, at best, waste our time, and at worst, it can seriously screw up peoples’ lives.

Take, for example the case of Louise who contacted this site some months ago when she received a visit from bailiffs demanding excessive amounts of money for two Ealing PCNs that she never received. The fact that she had moved home obviously figured in the equation.

Fortunately the system does have safeguards, and she filled an out of time Statutory Declaration in order to halt the bailiff enforcement action. In their wisdom, Ealing Council was unwilling to accept this Statutory Declaration, so (thankfully another safeguard) the matter had to be put before a County Court Judge to resolve the dispute. Read the rest of this entry »


The Moral of the Story is…

July 31, 2007

“I only had one card left. I pulled out my TravelBook and opened it, flicking past the TextMarker and the Eject-O-Hat and on towards the glass panel covering a red painted handle. A note painted on the glass read: IN UNPRECEDENTED EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS. If this wasn’t an unprecedented emergency, I don’t know what was. I smashed the glass, grabbed the handle and pulled it down with all my strength.”

(‘The Well of Lost Plots‘, © Jasper Fforde 2003, Hodder & Stoughton)

It occurred to me after I published the previous post (When Things Go Wrong) that, although I had described the catalogue of errors that lead to Penny paying the £155 Order for Recovery, I had failed to analyse the mistakes so that we might learn from them.

I can’t begin to comprehend what happened at Transport for London. Their system just spiralled completely out of control.

But, there are safeguards. If you know where to find them, of course. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Authorised Box Junctions

January 3, 2007

If a box junction is to be enforced then it should comply with the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 (usually abbreviated to TSRGD). However, if the Local Authority can demonstrate good reason why it is impossible to comply fully with TSRGD, and justify the need for the box junction, then the Secretary of State for Transport can, in exceptional circumstances, specifically authorise the use of a non compliant junction.

If there was a handful of such authorised junctions in the London area then you might believe the above statement, but just look at the list that has been authorised since enforcement began, particularly in 2006. It looks like Transport for London order authorisations by the container load and the Department for Transport (DfT) just rubber stamp them.

It would appear that TSRGD compliant box junctions are becoming the exception rather than the rule. The cynics amongst us might even suspect the DfT is being complicit in allowing Local Authorities to tax farm junctions that present drivers with difficulties.

Judge for yourself; the list is as follows:

Read the rest of this entry »

The Real Hustle

December 4, 2006

“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits.” (Thomas Edison)

Fairly soon after I received my Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) I visited a local solicitor to see if he could explain the legal basis on which it had been issued. Even though he had extensive experience of dealing with motoring and traffic offences he didn’t have a clue about the law surrounding PCNs. The problem is that no-one is really quite sure what is going on either – and that includes some of the local councils operating the enforcement scheme.

To put it simply, local councils are operating a legalised extortion racket. I have been desperately searching for some analogy to try and explain how the process works, but the nearest I can come to is that it is a cross between a confidence trick and a school bully.

The legal starting point is a few hundred years ago with the 1689 Bill of Rights. This bill is the nearest thing we have to a constitution and is regarded as sacrosanct by most decent politicians. One passage reads: “All grants and promises of fines and forfeitures of particular persons before conviction are illegal and void.” Put more simply you cannot be fined until you have been tried in a court of law and convicted of a criminal offence. The right to a fair trial is at the cornerstone of all human rights legislation.

Well yes, that is unless you decide to “decriminalise” some offences. You do this by massaging the language in a way that would make Sir Humphrey (for those of you that remember “Yes Minister”) proud. With the help of a parliamentary bill, and provided local councils choose their words correctly they can get away with extorting money out of motorists. I use the verb extort advisedly; it means “to obtain something by force or threat, or with difficulty” (Cambridge Dictionary) or to “obtain by force, threats, or other unfair means” (Oxford Dictionary). In this case local councils are legally permitted to obtain money by threat.

Here are the linguistic subtleties as defined in the Hustler’s Decriminalised Dictionary:

Criminal wording Decriminalised wording
Offence Contravention
Fine Penalty Charge
Admits Agrees
Claims Says
Guilty Contravention occured

Geddit? Not Sure? Let me illustrate.

Scenario: A photographer snaps pictures of a celeb fooling around with someone other than his/her partner. Photographer contacts celeb and says, “Pay up and I will destroy the evidence, otherwise I will go to the News of the World.”

Scenario: Local council takes pictures of a motorist stopped in a yellow box junction. Council contacts motorist and says, “Pay up and we will destroy the evidence, otherwise we might take you to court.”

You are not being accused of committing an offence immediately because an accusation must lead to a trial. Councils simply allege that a traffic contravention occurred and they invite (I’m being kind here) you to pay them hush money.

This is just the tip of the iceberg; it gets worse the deeper you dig. Talk about erosion of human rights –

WAKE UP ALL YOU ZOMBIES OUT THERE. Justice has left the building…