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Private parking need-to-knows

Spot the difference: one of these tickets is official, the other isn't

Official council parking fines are called 'Penalty Charge Notices', yet private parking tickets from supermarkets, hospitals and others do better impressions of these than Alistair McGowan.

Look at the 'Parking Charge Notice' in the pic on the right to see how similar they can be. Yet that one's not a fine, it's just an invoice.

Generally if you get an official parking fine, known as a Penalty Charge Notice, Excess Charge Notice or Fixed Penalty Notice, from a council or the police, it'll say it's from them. If so, you need to see our Parking Ticket Appeals guide.

If you've got a ticket from a private company, read on...

Remember, this is about fighting UNFAIR tickets

Of course, landowners have a right to charge for and police parking, eg, if you've blocked a hospital entrance. If you've broken the rules, and you think the ticket isn't exorbitant or disproportionate, pay up.

Fight Private Parking Tickets

Yet mistakes happen, whether it's an unclear sign, technology faults, overzealous attendants or just an honest error. The aim of this guide is to prevent you being out of pocket when most reasonable people would think a ticket is unfair.

If you DO think the ticket you've got is unfair, read on to decide whether to fight.

Never automatically pay a parking ticket from a private firm

If you get a ticket from a private parking firm which you believe is unfair, DON'T just pay it!

Trying to reclaim cash already paid isn't easy, so it's far easier to dispute it before paying it. Beating an unfair ticket isn't an exact science though. The strategy in this guide is based on the opinion of a number of legal experts – who don't always agree – plus large amounts of feedback.

Just so you know who we're talking about, here's a list of some of the big private parking firms: Britannia Parking Group, Euro Car Parks, Indigo Park Solutions, NCP and ParkingEye. (We don't have any info on whether these firms' tickets are fair or unfair – we're just listing them here so you know who some of the big firms are.)

Don't ever think of private parking tickets as 'fines'

They're not. Private parking companies have no official right to fine you, though they may try to make you think they do. All they're doing is sending you a notice for what they deem to be a breach of contract.

It isn't private companies issuing tickets that's the problem, but the unstructured system that puts unnecessary powers in potentially unscrupulous hands.

What's the law on this?

When you park in a privately-owned car park – eg, at a supermarket or hospital – you're effectively entering into an unspoken contractwith the landowner.

On the landowner's part, they're effectively allowing you to park on their land. On your part, by parking there you're agreeing to meet the conditions they've stated (eg, paying £1 for an hour, or staying for under two hours).

If you pay to park and leave without issue, great – contract fulfilled. But if you park in a reserved place, overstay, don't pay or leave your car outside an allocated parking area, the landowner can argue you've broken this contract, and issue you a parking ticket.

Under contract law in every part of the UK, private firms are allowed to do this. However, this doesn't mean they can issue tickets willy-nilly. To enforce their case, they'd ultimately need to take you to court. Even then, don't worry – it's not a criminal problem, just a contract dispute.

It's worth reporting unfair tickets to the landowner

If the parking firm which has issued your ticket has behaved particularly unfairly, it may be worth reporting it to the landowner – eg, a retailer or hospital – which employs it too.

It may be horrified at its antics and willing to intervene on your behalf to cancel the ticket – particularly if it's a big company with a reputation to protect. We've heard of motorists successfully battling this before, such as Neil Alcock, who was given a ticket for £95 for taking too long spending £400 in Homebase. Read the £95 ticket for taking too long to spend £400 MSE News story for more information.

Our forumites, who have plenty of experience fighting unfair tickets, have compiled a list of when and where this tactic has worked for them.

Don't assume the driver's liable for the ticket

It might be the driver wot dunnit – but that doesn't mean it's the driver who'll have to pay. Parking operators in England and Wales are allowed to hold the vehicle's owner liable for unpaid charges if they don't know who the driver was and the owner refuses, or is unable, to name the driver.

Bear in mind though that if you're ticketed while driving a hire car anywhere in the UK, you'll still be responsible for any parking tickets if you've accepted liability for them under the hire agreement.

Can they get my address?

Only accredited private parking operators can get the registered owner's details from the DVLA. This means the operators have to be a member of the British Parking Association or the newer Independent Parking Committee to get the owner's details from the DVLA.

In theory, firms which aren't BPA- or IPC-registered could physically follow you home to get your address. But in practice, as non-registered firms will find it harder to get hold of your details, they may not be able to chase you at all.

If you think a non-BPA or non-IPC registered firm has got hold of your details unlawfully, tell the DVLA.

It's worth noting that the Government's announced it'll soon bring in a new code of practice for private parking firms, and that companies will need to be signed up to it in order to get your details from the DVLA. However as firms already need to be registered with the BPA or IPC to get your details, it remains to be seen what difference this will make in practice.

Gather evidence if you plan to appeal

If you're still at the scene, gather as much evidence as possible. If you're reading this after, it's still worth grabbing what you can, as this evidence can be the key to winning.

Your evidence should be 'contemporaneous' (ie, made at the time) if possible, to truly reflect the situation when you got your ticket, so act ASAP.

Martin found just how crucial evidence can be when he got a ticket at 6.35pm, yet managed to take a photo of a sign showing he could park after 6.30pm – see his Parking fines reclaim blog. (Although Martin's ticket was from a council, the principle of gathering evidence is the same for private tickets.)

Here's what to collect:

  • Photographs. Snap any unclear signs, bay markings or lines, and areas where you believe they should be. Also take pics of where your car was, the meter and your ticket, plus anything else that might be relevant.

  • Correspondence. Keep everything you've been sent from the company, and copies of any information you have sent off.

  • Proof of mitigating circumstances. Keep anything relevant, such as receipts from a recovery company if you were broken down.

  • Witness statements. If anyone will corroborate your story, get their details and ask them to sign a statement – eg, if it was impossible to see the signs or you were loading or unloading goods from your car and you stayed within the rules.

Know your rights if you're clamped or towed

Clamping and towing on private land is banned in England and Wales under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, and it's been banned in Scotland since 1992. But there are some cases where you can be legally clamped or towed by a private company.

In England, Wales and Scotland, firms are sometimes subcontracted by the police, local authorities or Government agencies such as the DVLA. And where local bylaws are in place (eg, at some railway station and airport car parks), they may have the right to clamp or tow you. It's also worth noting that private companies can clamp you even on private land in Northern Ireland.

As clamping or towing is still possible in these circumstances, here's a stark warning to keep in mind...

Don't try to remove the clamp yourself, as any damage could be considered criminal.

What to do if your car has been towed by a private company on behalf of a council etc.

If you've been clamped or towed by a private company acting on behalf of a public sector body, such as a council, police force or the DVLA, you need to head to over to our Parking Ticket Appeals guide as there are a different set of rules to challenge a tow.

Been clamped or towed illegally? Call the police

If you've been clamped or towed away from anywhere in England, Wales and Scotland that isn't mentioned above, the first thing to do is call the police.

Don't hand over any money. Don't get into a debate with the clampers. Don't be scared to call 101, the non-emergency police number, if you don't feel threatened – or 999 if you do. There are tough penalties for breaking the law, including a £5,000 fine.

How to fight private parking tickets

The are three very different routes to fight unfair tickets. Which of the first two you use depends on whether the company that issued the ticket is part of a trade body. The other route, fighting on a technicality, is open to anyone.

Check if the firm's a member of a trade body

Hopefully the ticket will say if the company is a member of a trade body, but if not you need to check with the British Parking Association (BPA) or the International Parking Community (IPC). Make sure you do this first, and if you find it is, jump to:

How to appeal if the parking firm IS part of a trade body.

If it ISN'T a trade body member it's a different technique

If the company has chosen not to be a member of a trade body, there's a totally different step-by-step to fight unfair tickets. If you're sure it isn't a member, jump to:

How to dispute if the parking firm IS NOT part of a trade body.

It's also worth checking if there's a mistake on your ticket

There's also another route you can try, whether or not the parking firm belongs to a trade body. To see if you can appeal on a technicality, jump to:

How to fight an unfair ticket using the technical route.