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Manchester City Council (18 008 666)

Category : Transport and highways > Parking and other penalties

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 26 Mar 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr B complains about the Council’s handling of a Penalty Charge Notice. Mr B says the Council sent notices to the wrong address and did not put enforcement action on hold when he put in an appeal. We cannot investigate Mr B’s complaint that the Council did not send notices to the correct address. This is because Mr B appealed to the Traffic Enforcement Centre. There was some delay by the Council putting enforcement action on hold. But, this did not cause Mr B a significant injustice. We have completed our investigation.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I will refer to as Mr B, complains about the Council’s handling of a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) it issued him for an alleged parking contravention. Mr B says:
    • The Council wrongly sent the Notice to Owner and all formal notices to his previous address despite the fact he notified the DVLA of his new address before the Notice to Owner was issued.
    • The Council did not put enforcement action on hold when he put in a Witness Statement to the Traffic Enforcement Centre, and when he appealed to the County Court against the decision of the Traffic Enforcement Centre.
    • The Council did not allow him to pay the debt directly to the Council and not the enforcement agent.
    • A Council Officer, Officer A, lacked integrity and professionalism in the way she handled his contacts about the PCN, and the Council has not given proper consideration to his complaint about her conduct.
  2. Mr B says he has paid avoidable costs and spent considerable time trying to resolve the matter. Mr B also says he has had to pay to keep his classic car in storage due to threats from enforcement agents to clamp and remove it.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated all of Mr B’s complaints apart from his complaint that the Council wrongly sent the Notice to Owner and all formal notices to the wrong address (first bullet point above). I have addressed this complaint in the ‘Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate’ section at the end of this statement.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. We cannot investigate a complaint if someone has started court action about the matter. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)
  3. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have considered Mr B’s complaint and have discussed the complaint with him. I have made enquiries to the Council and have considered the information provided by the Council in response. I have also shared a draft version of this statement with Mr B and the Council, and have considered the comments I received in response.

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What I found

  1. If a PCN has not been paid after 28 days the local authority may issue a Notice to Owner to the registered keeper of the vehicle. This gives the registered keeper the opportunity to make formal representations to the Council to dispute the PCN. If the representations are formally rejected by the local authority, it must tell the registered keeper of their right of appeal to the traffic penalty tribunal (if outside London).
  2. If the appeal is unsuccessful (or if no representations are made) the Council may issue a Charge Certificate, which increases the charge. If the motorist does not pay the PCN within 14 days, the local authority may then apply to the Traffic Enforcement Centre to register the Charge Certificate and issue an Order for Recovery.
  3. For parking contraventions the registered keeper may put in a Witness Statement to the Traffic Enforcement Centre on one of the following grounds:
    • The registered keeper has not received the Notice to Owner or Penalty Charge Notice;
    • The registered keeper made representations to the Local Authority but did not receive a rejection notice.
    • The registered keeper made an appeal to the traffic penalty tribunal and received no response; or
    • The registered keeper has paid the penalty charge in full.
  4. If a valid Witness Statement is put in to the Traffic Enforcement Centre, what happens next depends on the grounds for making the Witness Statement. If the ground was that the Notice to Owner was not received, the Order for Recovery, Charge Certificate and Notice to Owner are cancelled. The Enforcement Authority may then issue a new Notice to Owner.

What happened

  1. On 11 June 2017 the Council issued a Penalty Charge Notice to Mr B for an alleged parking contravention. On 18 June Mr B sent the Council an email saying his vehicle had broken down and he could not move it.
  2. Mr B put in representations to the Council which the Council treated as informal representations. Mr B told the Council he would wait to receive the Notice to Owner before making formal representations and if needed, would appeal to the tribunal.
  3. On 21 August the Council sent a Notice to Owner to Mr B. At this time the charge was £70. The Council says it used the address for Mr B’s vehicle which was provided by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). Mr B says this notice was sent to his previous address, so he did not receive it.
  4. On 18 September Mr B phoned the Council because he had not received any further correspondence or a Notice to Owner. The Council says Mr B mentioned that he had told the DVLA about his change of address in early August. The Council says it told Mr B he could make representations and provide information about the change of address issue. The Council says it did not receive any representations from Mr B.
  5. On 25 September the Council issued a Charge Certificate which increased the charge to £105. On 11 December the Council obtained an Order for Recovery. The Council says it sent both these notices to the address provided by the DVLA and they were not returned as undelivered. The charge was now £113.
  6. On 24 January 2018 the Council was issued with a warrant to recover the unpaid PCN. The Council then instructed enforcement agents to recover the debt.
  7. On 23 February Mr B phoned the Council and sent emails to the Council about the PCN. Mr B became aware that the Council had sent letters about the PCN to his old address. The Council told Mr B he could contact the Traffic Enforcement Centre.
  8. The Council’s records say on 23 February Mr B phoned the Council to say he had put in a late Witness Statement to the Traffic Enforcement Centre.
  9. On 26 February an enforcement agent visited Mr B’s property about the debt and left a letter. This added enforcement costs of £235 to the PCN debt. On the same day, the Council says the Traffic Enforcement Centre told it Mr B had put in a late Witness Statement. This resulted in the Council putting a hold on enforcement action on 27 February.
  10. On 9 March a court officer at the Traffic Enforcement Centre refused Mr B’s late Witness Statement. The decision told Mr B he could ask for the decision to be reviewed by a district judge.
  11. On 16 March the enforcement agent took the case off hold. Mr B phoned the Council on the same day to try to pay the PCN. The officer told Mr B he could not make a payment to the Council because the debt was with the enforcement agent. The enforcement agent says it agreed a repayment arrangement with Mr B. Mr B then paid the enforcement agent £113, which was the original charge amount. The enforcement agent treated this as an instalment towards the total debt.
  12. Mr B then asked for a district judge at the Traffic Enforcement Centre to review the decision of the court officer dated 9 March.
  13. Mr B says the Traffic Enforcement Centre has confirmed it sent an email to the Council to tell it about this on 26 March. The Council says it was notified of this appeal on 27 March.
  14. On 28 March Mr B told the enforcement agent about his appeal. On the same day the enforcement agent sent Mr B a text reminder for payment.
  15. On 2 April the enforcement agent cancelled the payment arrangement because Mr B had not made payments in line with the agreement.
  16. On 3 April Mr B told the Council about his appeal.
  17. On 4 April Mr B phoned the Council again. Mr B asked why enforcement action had not been put on hold given he had put in a late Witness Statement to the Traffic Enforcement Centre. Mr B says when he called the Council call centre the man he spoke to was very helpful but then he spoke to Officer A who said the case should not be taken off hold.
  18. The Council’s notes say:

Call from cust, wanted to know why enforcement agents not on hold as he believes as soon as N244 is filed the enforcement agents should be held, adv that is what I thought the process was but I would double check, cust[omer] adv that a previous advisor adv that [Officer A] told him this would not be put on hold, spoke to [officer name] in back office who adv that it should be put on hold, [Officer name] to check with [officer name] if this is done and will email me to confirm so I can adv cust this is done, cust fine with this.”

  1. The Council says it then put a 99 day hold on enforcement agent action and phoned Mr B back to confirm the debt was on hold with the enforcement agent. Mr B says before enforcement action was put on hold he had received threatening calls and text messages from the enforcement agent about the debt.
  2. On 23 April a district judge at the Traffic Enforcement Centre issued a decision notice which said they had refused Mr B’s application to put in a late Witness Statement. The Council then lifted the hold on enforcement action.
  3. In late May Mr B put in a complaint to the Council about its handling of the PCN.
  4. The Council says in June Mr B provided evidence, for the first time, that he had moved from the address provided by the DVLA. During the same month the Council responded to Mr B’s complaint at stage 1 of the Council’s complaints procedure. The Council said the remaining debt owed by Mr B was £310.
  5. Mr B was not satisfied with the Council’s handling of his stage 1 complaint, so he put in a stage 2 complaint in August. The Council responded later that month. The Council said the Traffic Enforcement Centre had not instructed the Council to put enforcement action on hold. The Council said without such an instruction the Council’s policy is not to put the case on hold. The Council also said:

Once a case has progressed to an enforcement agent the Council has taken the decision that all payments should be made to the enforcement agent. This is to ensure there is no confusion about what is owed as enforcement fees become due as soon as an enforcement agent issues a letter of compliance.

  1. The enforcement agent says since then they have sent several reminders to Mr B to pay the unpaid debt.
  2. In September Mr B complained to us.

Analysis

  1. I will now address each of Mr B’s complaints.

The Council did not put enforcement action on hold when he put in a Witness Statement to the Traffic Enforcement Centre, and when he appealed to the County Court against the decision of the Traffic Enforcement Centre

  1. We would generally expect a local authority to put enforcement action on hold once a motorist has put in an appeal (either a Witness Statement or a Statutory Declaration depending on the contravention) to the Traffic Enforcement Centre.
  2. When it responded to Mr B’s complaint the Council said it would only put a suspension on enforcement action when instructed to do so by the Traffic Enforcement Centre. The Council has since clarified that when it is notified by the Traffic Enforcement Centre of an application, it will put enforcement action on hold for 99 days, and no action will be taken until a decision is made by the Traffic Enforcement Centre.
  3. There were two periods when Mr B put in an appeal to the Traffic Enforcement Centre.
  4. Mr B put in his first appeal in February 2018. Mr B told the Council on 23 February that he had put in a late witness statement to the Traffic Enforcement Centre. On 26 February the Traffic Enforcement Centre told the Council Mr B had put in a late witness statement. This resulted in the Council putting enforcement action on hold the next day. Between Mr B telling the Council about his appeal and the Council putting enforcement action on hold, an enforcement agent visited Mr B’s property. This resulted in the debt increasing by £235.
  5. It would have been open to the Council to have put enforcement action on hold once Mr B mentioned he had put in a late witness statement. But, my view is the Council was not at fault for waiting for this to be confirmed by the Traffic Enforcement Centre before putting enforcement action on hold.
  6. Mr B put in his second appeal in March 2018. Mr B says the Traffic Enforcement Centre told the Council about his appeal on 26 March. The Council says the Traffic Enforcement Centre told it about the appeal on 27 March. I do not consider the difference between the two dates is significant. The Council did not put enforcement action on hold until 4 April. So, the evidence suggests the Council unreasonably delayed putting enforcement action on hold.
  7. Mr B says between 26 March and 4 April he received threatening calls and text messages from the enforcement agent about the debt. I recognise that these contacts would have caused Mr B some distress. But, the debt did not increase during this period. I find Mr B has not suffered a significant injustice because of the Council’s delay which would warrant asking the Council to take action.
  8. Mr B complains that Officer A was not helpful and said enforcement action should not be suspended, contrary to the views of other officers. But, because Officer A later decided to put enforcement action on hold, any fault did not cause Mr B an injustice.

The Council did not allow him to pay the debt directly to the Council and not the enforcement agent

  1. Local authorities may decide that once enforcement action has started, payments towards the debt must be made to the enforcement agent and not the local authority.
  2. The enforcement agent is often in the best position to take the payment and adjust the debt accordingly. Mr B says his view that the Council must accept payment is supported by legislation. To support this point, Mr B says he had paid the amount outstanding by making the payment of £113. But, by this stage the debt had increased because enforcement costs of £235 has been added. So, Mr B’s payment of £113 was not enough to cancel the debt. So, my view is the Council’s requirement for Mr B to pay the debt to the enforcement agent, and not the Council, is not evidence of fault.

A Council Officer, Officer A, lacked integrity and professionalism in the way she handled his contacts about the PCN, and the Council has not given proper consideration to his complaint about her conduct

  1. My view is Mr B’s complaint about the conduct of Officer A is mainly about her involvement in the Council’s response to his request to put enforcement action on hold in early April 2018. I have already addressed this complaint above. Mr B also complains about the way Officer A spoke to him. But, as Mr B recognises, it is unlikely that further investigation would help me make sound findings on this matter. So, I have decided not to investigate this part of Mr B’s complaint further.

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Final decision

  1. There was some fault by the Council but Mr B did not suffer a significant injustice as a result. I have completed my investigation.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. Mr B used his right of appeal to the Traffic Enforcement Centre to challenge how the Council served him with notices about the PCN. Because Mr B used this right of appeal and the matter has been decided by the court, the Ombudsman cannot investigate this complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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