The London Borough of Lewisham took away and destroyed a man’s car with no proper legal basis or justification.
The Ombudsman said: “The way that the Council dealt with this complaint and with [the complainant] was disgraceful,” and criticised the “incorrect and seriously misleading” information it had provided to her during her investigation.
‘Mr B’ owned a limited edition 1987 Mazda coupe. He complained that the Council removed and destroyed his car and ignored him when he complained. He said: “the Council stole my car.”
Mr B parked his car in a private parking space outside the flat that he rented from a housing association. The car park was enclosed on all sides apart from the entrance and was unmistakeably private property. The car was registered to Mr B at an address nearby. From the end of June 2007 Mr B didn’t renew the tax because he was waiting for a replacement part for the car.
In the morning of 7 August 2007 Mr B’s car was removed at about 8am. A neighbour told him that it had been taken away by a pick-up truck sent by the Council and that he had told the driver that Mr B lived in the flats.
By 11am Mr B was at the Council depot trying to get his car back. He could not get anyone to help. He left his telephone number and asked for someone in authority to contact him – no-one did. At 9.40 am the next day the manager telephoned Mr B and told him that his car had been destroyed. Mr B said that he was laughed at when he said he was going to complain.
The Ombudsman found that the Council had no proper legal basis or justification for removing and destroying the car, and had provided incorrect and seriously misleading information to her. The Council could not show what its policy was at the time and the procedures that it had did not comply with the law or government guidance. The Council’s maladministration was compounded by the contempt officers showed to Mr B’s attempts to recover his car; its failure to have any criteria for deciding whether a vehicle should be destroyed; and its failure to record who decided to destroy Mr B’s car and on what basis.
The Ombudsman pointed out that the Human Rights Act 1998 made it unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 1 of the First Protocol to that Convention said “….no one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law…”
The Ombudsman found maladministration causing injustice. The Council itself said the case “…represents an unacceptable catalogue of errors and catastrophes” and has indicated that it will accept the Ombudsman’s recommendations that it should:
- apologise to Mr B;
- pay him £2,000 (comprising £1,400 for the value of his car plus £600 to reflect his justified outrage and his trouble in pursuing his complaint);
- publish a policy and procedure for dealing with untaxed and abandoned vehicles; and
- ensure that employees act within the law.