Local people issued with “unfair” private car park fines have been urged to report the matter to the Consumer Council which has managed to get charges withdrawn in a succession of cases.
Dr. Catriona MacArthur, from the Consumer Council, confirmed that every case it has taken on to date, has resulted in the charges being dropped. She is now urging people to contact them directly if they are affected.
Local people have repeatedly raised concerns after being issued with fines by post or on the spot at privately operated car parks at retail and business complexes right across the north-west over recent years. Several car park operators have erected signs at private car parks, with warnings that motorists face financial penalties if they stay beyond a stipulated free parking time limit and have employed wardens to enforce this.
Speaking to the ‘Journal’ ahead of the Consumer Parliament coming to the Guildhall in Derry on March 23, Dr MacArthur, who is the Consumer Council’s Director of Consumer Insight, Empowerment and Protection, said that the council was aware that the issue was one that was exercising consumers in Northern Ireland.
The council has now undertaken work to find out the legal standing of such penalties and the issue is one of many set to be raised at the forthcoming parliament.
Dr MacArthur added: “What we became aware of in Belfast was that when these companies came in and took over car parking, people were being issued unfair fines and there was nobody to go to for appeal. There’s the Ombudsman in Britain, but not in Northern Ireland.
“In Britain it is the car that has the liability for fines, here it is the driver. We decided to step in and collect the evidence to get some form of clarification in legislation and get an appeals body set up.
“We have had a number of complaints and we have been successful in overturning every one of these - in the region of 10 of these fines.”
The cost of the fines issued can vary but that have been reports of people being charged up to £90. Dr. MacArthur said the fines were often “disproportionate.”
“The point is, it hasn’t been clarified legally whether they have the right,” Dr. MacArthur said, adding: “We would always say to people with consumer issues to try to contact the company first to resolve it, but in the case of car parking fines do not contact the company, contact us, because there is a difference here with the driver being the responsible person and they have taken it as an admission of liability.”
Dr. MacArthur said the Consumer Council had a very broad remit to promote and safeguard the interests of consumers.
Its statutory functions reach to four different areas: water/sewage, postal services, transport and energy, but also extends to any area of the consumer market such as car parking fines on private land and bank closures.
“We are the only body in Northern Ireland that has the power to make a super complaint to a relevant body and they have to investigate. We do have teeth,” she said.
During the parliament in Derry there will be break out sessions and a consumer clinic running on the day, where people can talk one-on-one with experts.
Relevant representatives will be there to discuss issues around postal services, such as surcharges for online shoppers from Northern Ireland, broadband services, tips on how to reduce households bills, switching energy providers and consumer rights, and warranties.
During the day there will also be a particular focus on the issues that have arisen for local people since the devastating floods last August.“This is clearly a massive issue and there may be people who haven’t received the support they need,” Dr MacArthur added. “The Consumer Council is part of a regional inter-agency group and they are going to host a session on flooding and talk directly to the people who have been affected. All the relevant bodies will be there.”
The Consumer Council has also been involved in looking at Brexit and its impact on consumer legislatio and recently facilitated meetings between officials from the department handling the negotiations on this and local representatives, during which the implications for border counties was discussed. “There are so many unknowns but we have ensured the voice of Northern Ireland consumers is being heard,” Dr. MacArthur concluded.
To lodge a complaint with the Council call: 0800 121 6022. To register for the Consumer Parliament visit www.consumercouncil.org.uk/consumerparliament or call free on 08001216022. Residents unable to attend can still have their say by completing a short survey available at www.consumercouncil.org.uk/consumerparliament