So… you park in a car park where there are no clear signs of how you should pay or how much you should pay, or indeed to whom you should pay it. Then you get a threatening letter some time later charging a fine for “illegal” parking. Then the debt collector’s letters start, then the solicitor’s letters, and ultimately the threatening, intimidating phone calls. I bet the majority of you will just pay up. And I’m not being sexist here, but most of the people who pay up will be female – they’re just so easy for these telephone debt collectors to intimidate. That’s the reason this racket continues to grow into a multi-million pound business.

I had just such a run-in with Meteor Parking at Brighton Station car park. Visit the car park and you’ll see entry and exit barrier machines all wrapped up in plastic with their barriers removed, as if they’re now disused, which in fact they are. You’ll see cameras dotted about. But until recently you wouldn’t have seen clear signage that says whose car park this is, how much it costs and displaying clear terms and conditions, and it’s debateable whether they’re clear even now. Even if you did see such things, merely parking in the car park would not represent a clear breach of contract – because according to the laws of England and Wales you cannot unwittingly enter into any contract, or be tricked into entering into one.

So when you get the “fine”, be very clear in your mind. Though it’s made to look threatening, and as similar as possible to something from the Police or government, that’s just the first part of the process of intimidation. It’s not a fine. A fine can only be levied by an organisation authorised by statute, that is when a law has been passed or a license granted by government to collect such a fine. Meteor Parking is not. Nor are a whole host of other parking companies (Park Direct Ltd, TCP, UK Parking Control, Euro Car Parks etc) which have sprung up over the past 20 years. All they can do is issue you with an invoice, and even then it’s fraudulent if there’s not a clear contract that you’ve entered into with your full knowledge.

So let’s turn to the debt collectors – Roxburghe – well, apart from sending a threatening letter or two, they were pretty ineffectual. The worrying one is “Graham White Solicitors”. Check their records. They have one solicitor listed – one Michael David Sobell, who was admitted as a solicitor in 1962 – see here. But you’ll never hear from him… instead you get letters threatening you, intimidating you, and even adding extra charges from nowhere for “administration” or “costs”. Then you get calls – several per week – what sounds like and is clearly a busy call centre, staffed by rather cocky, pushy chaps claiming to represent Graham White Solicitors who will desperately try to justify their attempts to get you to pay up with a credit card over the phone. These are not solicitors – nor paralegals – nor legal secretaries. These are just call centre debt collectors. They quote laws that don’t exist. They claim powers for authorities who either don’t exist or who have no such powers (like the British Parking Association who, it was claimed, have the power to license or shut down ANY car park in the UK – which they don’t – they’re just a professional association). They say you’ve parked “illegally”, which suggests that you’re in breach of some sort of parking control legislation – but at the most it’s a minor breach of an implicit, assumed contract. They will threaten your credit rating. They will threaten civil litigation, small claims court, county court judgements (CCJs) – anything they can use to worry you into paying. One complete idiot even mentioned getting points on my driving license if I didn’t pay up! Eventually they’ll even start offering you discounts if you pay right now – bit desperate, eh? They really don’t like it when you actually know more than they do – which generally isn’t hard, if you’ve done your research. Several times they’ve lost their temper and put the phone down on me.

Feeling alone? Don’t. Look here… and see that there are lots of people in the same position. Let’s use some logic for a moment – through all this I have been in contact with a whole host of people employed solely to collect money on a rather dodgy principle of law. If this wasn’t a huge money-making enterprise, how on earth could they afford all this? Go-Ahead sold Meteor Parking to Vinci Park Services in September 2010 for a whopping £11M. Then there’s Graham White Solicitors – all those employees, all that effort. And so much desperation in their tactics. So please don’t be intimidated into paying if you don’t think you should.

Oh, and… this is to the Law Society, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Legal Ombudsman. If you’re fed up with your noble profession being viewed in a negative light; if you’d like to be seen by the public as an honourable, trustworthy profession… well, you know what to do. Regulate your solicitors. Put your house in order.

N.B. The firm Graham White Solicitors mentioned in this article is Graham White Solicitors of Manor House, Lavender Park Road, West Byfleet, KT14 6ND, tel 01932 332 020, fax 01932 352 617 specialising in Civil Litigation, Commercial Property, Landlord and Tenant and is wholly unrelated to Graham White & Co of Bushey, Herts.

Update, February 2012: For more than six months I’ve heard nothing more from Roxburghe or Graham White Solicitors, or indeed Meteor Parking. Today I sent an email to The Law Society, because I know if I was leading a professional body like the Law Society, I’d be pretty damned annoyed about someone taking the good name of the profession in vain like the so-called “Graham White Solicitors”.

Update, October 2012: The law has changed where parking on private land is concerned. There’s a very good summary on The AA’s private parking page.