The document accusing my poor wee car of this infringement of the local resident parking regulations is dense with print, unnervingly heavy on black ink - in bold, in capitals - and full, lousy with, serial numbers and reference numbers. It is designed to strike terror into any tiny little car, and - if our cars could read - the engine would probably splutter and die, the wheels would seize up and the handbrake would jam on. This car is now afraid, very afraid, and it's going nowhere. It's not safe out there any more...
So it was up to me as the guardian of The Little Car, being in loco parentis, to gird my loins and defend it. I know my car. It keeps to the speed limit (well, no more than 5 mph above, just, maybe, occasionally) and stays on its own side of the road and it doesn't stop for a little kip just anywhere. It parks itself up neatly and correctly with Pay and Display ticket or Visitor's Permit and snuggles down in the marked bay for a well earned rest. It doesn't do things "improperly". What an unmitigated insult. Who is telling such shocking fibs about a tiny defenceless hatchback?
I began to investigate.
I checked the calendar for the day in question to ascertain if The Little Car was in that city at all that day. Yes. It had very kindly taken us to stay with The Daughter for the weekend and delivered us to the curb safely quite late in the afternoon on the Saturday in question. The details of the nasty rude document alleged it was then "improperly parked without a valid permit". My eye. When we'd pulled up at the house there was a warden prowling, so The Husband had stayed in the driving seat to comfort the car, which seemed to be trembling slightly even though the engine was off. It's the uniform, you see. Makes cars nervous.
The Daughter immediately prepared a scratch card parking permit to cover the time the car would be snoozing in the street and it was put on its dashboard while we unpacked our belongings and decanted The Dog from the back seat. All was well, all four people present were certain of that and prepared to challenge any aspersions it wasn't. But if all was tickety-boo how come the parking ticket? I demanded photographic evidence of the contravention and registered a curt and to-the-point representation "in the box provided". The Husband sent it back by guaranteed next-day delivery at some considerable expense (well, over a fiver, god dammit).
You know me, Dear Reader. I am too verbose to be able to express myself in a mere BOX, even if it was a biggish section of a sheet of A4. Words of high dudgeon were marshalling themselves to summersault to the defence of the maligned little car which serves us so well. It was personal, an affront to our vehicle, and at least £70 was at stake. In fact, by not coughing up straightaway but instead challenging the penalty charge, the horrid black capitals warned the dear wee car that someone would have to pay MORE if the appeal failed. Another 50%, bringing the amount to £105.
This threatened increase (if not paying within 28 days) was demanding money by menaces, an attempt to defraud, a psychological attack. Or so it felt. We were SURE no contravention had happened. Would we be so silly with a Civil Enforcement Officer's beady eye on us when we arrived (such are we required to call the universally loathed Traffic Warden these days)? I was brimming over with righteous indignation so I typed an e-mail. Quite a long one. OK, by most people's standards a really rather long one. Full of trenchantly expressed feeling and words like "exceedingly aggrieved". Well I was! Someone had dissed the family motor. Heads would roll. They would RUE the DAY. I finished with a flourish and pressed SEND.
I'd told The Daughter by this time. She messaged back - did you hang on to the permit, by any chance, perhaps stuff it in the glove compartment? It thought it was a long shot but I went to the car to look, giving it a comforting pat on its bonnet while I was about it. I fished about in its various storage nooks and crannies, even emptying the map pocket in the door of CDs and sweet wrappers. No go. Then I felt under the seat and pulled out a tied-up carrier bag of, presumably, rubbbish. With that excitement archeologists bubble over with when they unearth some "tremendously interesting" muddy shard of pot, I opened the bag and found the permit, for the right day, scrunched up and scruffy, yes, but absolutely the right permit! Whooping with triumph I dashed upstairs, scanned it and attached a copy of it to my NEXT, but much briefer, e-mail. "Take THAT!" I riposted to the car's invisible foe, and signed off with a suggestion the officer in question take a trip to the optician. Actually it was worse than that. I said "ophthalmologist", all spelt right with the PH and TH and everything. An attempt to intimidate by vocabulary. A weakness of mine, you will have noticed.
Oh dear. I had got a bit carried away. I should have been a smidgen more careful. Sitting with a celebratory glass of chilled white I re-read the e-mails and sat glowing with triumphant pride marvelling at the enlarged scan of the re-found permit. And read it a bit more closely.
My tired old heart sank to somewhere around about the place that used to be my waist when I had one. There was a mistake on the permit.
The visitor's permits in The Daughter's street are those scratch card types where the voucher has to be scrubbed away at carefully to reveal the DATE, MONTH, YEAR, HOUR and MINUTE (to the nearest 5) that the car was parked. We'd arrived at 3.45pm, so The Daughter had scratched out 15 for the hour and 45 for the minute. Trouble was, she'd chosen both numbers from the same box, the MINUTE box, and hadn't scratched out the 15 from the HOUR box. Was that IT? Was that the outrageous offence that was going to cost us £70 - no, correction, £105? Could that seriously be all it was?
I e-mailed again (don't groan so loudly, Dear Reader - what would YOU have done? Paid £70 by return with no questions asked?) saying I'd now noticed the tiny error but didn't believe that was all it took to be given a penalty of £70 <£105, and I would appeal up to tribunal level if it was. Oh, and offered a rueful comment about the "ophthalmologist" suggestion somewhat backfiring on us. Nervous laugh, apologetic stutter, press SEND.
Then I decided to let it rest for the evening; we had a guest for dinner, I was late getting going on the food (coq au vin a la creme, with braised onions, celery and leeks, if you're at all curious) and I'd rather eat that than any more humble pie.
It was a good dinner, and a lot of fun, but my mind was never more than roughly half on it, not really. The other half was on £105. What a really nice Christmas present that would have bought someone. How huge an amount it was for so small a mistake, a tiny and genuine error made under pressure as a warden paraded with sinister deliberation up and down the street punching numbers into his unfeelingly heartless, pedantic, pernickity little machine.
So, at what should have been bedtime, I went back to the pooter and started a little more research. I looked into the appeal procedure and tried to work out my defence. I checked all the grounds which usually succeeded, but no exact parallel with The Little Car's case seemed to exist. Then I punched "error on parking permit, appeal" into Google and found a discussion thread. Some libertarians of the driving world had got together to help motorists who felt unjustly accused defend themselves. And one contibutor was a solicitor, it seemed. This was what he had added only last month;
BH05920B The PCN was issued for parking in a resident’s permit space without displaying a valid permit. The appellant was a visitor. She obtained and displayed a visitor’s scratch-card voucher. This required her to scratch off the day of the week, date, month and year. She made a mistake with the date, scratching off 21 instead of 22; all the other details were correct. The council claimed that this error invalidated the voucher.
Held: This was the wrong approach. No contravention had occurred. The mistake was de minimis and did not invalidate the voucher. Given the combination of correct information given, the voucher could not have been used on any other day. While the adjudicator did not necessarily criticise the enforcement officer for issuing the PCN, the council should have appreciated that a minor and genuine error had occurred and cancelled it. Appeal allowed.
TPT case from THE JOINT REPORT OF THE PARKING ADJUDICATORS FOR ENGLAND AND WALES APRIL 2008 TO MARCH 2009
EUREKA! I had them by the short and curlies. I had a precedent in appellate law. I had case number and official report. I had the exact legal jargon to strike back. De Minimis. An error so inconsequential it had NOT invalidated the permit, as it was correct in respect of date, month and year, so could not be used on any other day.
Thank God for Google. An hour or two at the pooter and researching through its offerings had just saved the family £105. I felt, as I finally toddled off to bo-boes, that The Little Car would be supremely happy that it had been the use of a Search ENGINE that had saved the day.
It seems to me - yet again - that le most juste and justice have a deep common root somewhere. As is so often the case, it is the exact right word used in the exact right way which proves to be the most powerful weapon any of us can have in difficult times.