PRIVATE car parks have managed to escape statutory regulation for far too long – but that’s about to change.

This is a significant business sector with operators managing car parks for supermarkets, retail shopping centres and fast-food outlets. Private companies issue five million parking notices to UK motorists every year.

The sector has enjoyed self-regulation with trade associations operating voluntary codes of practice and appeals. Typically, private parking charges are issued at £100, with a reduction to £60 if full payment is made within 14 days.

If a parking notice isn’t paid promptly many companies will add on £50 in “administration charges”, resulting in a total daily charge of £150. Motorists who are ticketed may have stayed a relatively short time over the free stay of one or two hours.

Many consider these companies as akin to a Venus flytrap catching folk on the hop and exploiting minor transgressions; others would point to the fact if you overstay, you’ve only yourself to blame as other people need access to free parking to shop and make purchases.

What can’t be denied is that private parking charges appear egregious when compared to local authority penalty charge notices (PCN). In Glasgow, a PCN is levied at £60, with a discount to £30 if payment is made in full within 14 days of issue.

PCNs have a statutory basis from the 1991 Road Traffic Act; while private charges are issued under the common law of contract. The fact you park in a bay with prominent signage explaining overstaying will cost you £100 per day with a £50 administration charge forms a contract by your act of parking.

How can private companies justify levying charges at almost triple the rate of local authority ones? Such concerns led to MP Greg Knight introducing a Private Member’s Bill in the House of Commons a few years ago which was backed by the UK government.
The 2019 Parking (Code of Practice) Act introduces a statutory code of practice for private companies that will cap the level of charges and set out required standards in terms of the operation of private car parks.

Breach of the code is not of itself legally actionable by consumers but can result in the company losing access to the DVLA’s database of names and addresses of registered owners of vehicles.

The 2019 Act will introduce a single independent appeals service for motorists who believe they’ve been treated unfairly. The code and appeals service will be funded by a new levy on car park operators.

The timeline for these reforms starts this summer with a transitional period for operators to adapt to the new code, and the full regulatory regime will be in force by the middle of next year.

There’s scope for Scotland to take its own approach – a recent statement from the UK Government said: “The Scottish Government intends to align with the approach of bringing private parking charges closer to the principles of the local authority system.”
Capping private charges to the level of those in the public sector would be very welcome. 

Until these reforms are implemented, it’s worth bearing in mind that private parking notices are both lawful and enforceable before the courts.
In 2015, the UK Supreme Court upheld the fairness and legitimacy of a private parking fee of £85. Indeed, the Sheriff Principal in Edinburgh had done likewise in a court action back in 2005.

If you get a private parking charge don’t ignore it. If you think the notice is wrong, or unfair – for example, there wasn’t clear signage of the charge, or you have extenuating circumstances – use the company’s appeals process.

You can argue that additional “administration charges” are unfair because they’re priced too high at half the charge itself.

You can rely on paragraph 6 of schedule 2 of the 2015 Consumer Rights Act which provides, “a term which has the object or effect of requiring a consumer who fails to fulfil his obligations under the contract to pay a disproportionately high sum in compensation”.

Whatever you do, don’t just keep on overstaying in the car park and ignoring the notices and letters that come in. The company has five years to sue you, and, if they do, you may be looking at a very large bill.

Remember, if your usual home is in Glasgow – known as your “domicile” – you can’t be sued in an English county court for a parking charge in Glasgow.

You are protected as a consumer through section 15B(3) of the 1982 Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Act, which states “proceedings may be brought against the consumer by the other party to the consumer contract only in the courts of the part of the United Kingdom in which the consumer is domiciled”.