Enforcement of road charging schemes (such as Transport for London’s Congestion Charge and Low Emission Zones)

This fact sheet is aimed primarily at people who are unhappy with the way Transport for London (TfL) is dealing with a congestion charge or Low Emission Zone related issue and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman. It also applies to some other schemes such as the Durham City peninsula congestion charge and the Mersey Gateway Bridge.

I have a complaint about how Transport for London operates the London congestion charging scheme or the low emission zone. Can the Ombudsman help me? 

The law says we should not normally look at something where Parliament has provided a right of appeal to an independent tribunal and we consider it is reasonable to expect that right to be used. 

TfL operates what are known as the congestion charging zone and the low emission zone in London. If a motorist contravenes the regulations governing these zones, TfL may issue a penalty charge notice. 

Because there is a statutory right of appeal against the issue of a penalty charge notice we will not normally investigate a complaint about penalty charges or their enforcement.

However, there are some circumstances when we may consider complaints about the zones and the way they are enforced. These are typically where the motorist has said there were mitigating circumstances which should be taken into acount and TfL has not considered them, or unreasonably dismissed them.

TfL is also responsible for processing applications for discounts and exemptions. We may consider complaints that TfL has failed to carry out these processes properly.

I have a complaint about how a council outside London operates a road charging scheme. Can the Ombudsman help me?

  • The law says we should not normally look at something where Parliament has provided a right of appeal to an independent tribunal and we consider it is reasonable to expect that right to be used. 
  • There is a statutory right of appeal to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal against a penalty charge notice for a road charging contravention. For this reason, we will not normally investigate a complaint about penalty charges or their enforcement.
  • Where the council involved is responsible for processing discounts and exemptions, we may consider complaints that it has failed to do this properly.

How do I complain?  

You should check with TfL or the council as soon as possible about your appeal rights as there are time limits for appealing. Because the process for dealing with challenges to penalty charges is laid down by law and leads to an independent appeal. TfL or the council will not usually deal with such matters through their complaints procedure. Further, the existence of appeal rights on statutory grounds (whether or not you use them) will usually mean that we cannot help you.

Usually, you should complain to us within 12 months of when you first knew about the problem. If you leave it any later, we may not be able to help.

For more information on how to complain, please read our step by step process.

If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for? 

Complaints about penalty charge notices:

There are six statutory grounds for appeal against the issue of a penalty charge notice. These are broadly:

  • that the recipient was not the registered keeper at the time of the contravention
  • that the charge had been paid 
  • that no penalty charge is payable under the relevant scheme
  • that the vehicle had been stolen or taken without permission
  • that the penalty charge exceeded the amount applicable in the circumstances of the case, and
  • that the recipient is a vehicle hire firm.

We will not normally investigate complaints about penalty charges where these grounds apply because there is a right of appeal to London Tribunals.

However, penalties may be challenged for any other reasons – what we call ‘mitigating circumstances’. Examples might be where  the motorist was forced into the zone because of a police diversion or because the vehicle registration number was cloned. If you believe that TfL has not properly considered mitigating circumstances you may complain to us and we may consider the complaint.

You may also complain to us if TfL continues to issue penalty charge notices or enforce penalties when it should have known for some reason that it was a mistake to do so. An example may be when you had proved to TfL that your car number had been cloned, but it continues to issue new penalty charge notices to you. 

Outside of London, the adjudicator can also consider if there were mitigating circumstances why a road charging penalty charge should not be paid.

Complaints about the actions of bailiffs: 

We can look at some complaints about bailiffs acting for TfL but this depends on the individual circumstances. You should first try to resolve any issue with TfL or the bailiffs. If the matter remains unresolved, we can consider the particular circumstances and decide if we can help. 

We may consider complaints where a penalty charge notice has been cancelled but bailiff charges have not been refunded.  

Complaints about residents’ registration and exemptions: 

We will consider complaints that there has been an unreasonable delay in registering a resident for a discount and that the complainant has suffered an injustice because of the delay. Similarly we will consider complaints that TfL failed to register vehicles for 100% discount or for other exemptions.

What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the Transport for London or a council was at fault?

We will seek to put someone in the position that they would have been in if the fault had not occurred. 

In the complaints against TfL that we can look at the most common result of fault is that the motorist’s case has not been properly considered or they have lost the chance to appeal. In these cases we might simply ask TfL to reconsider the matter properly or reinstate the appeal rights. 

In some circumstances, we might ask TfL to pay compensation to recognise the injustice caused or someone’s time and trouble in pursuing a complaint. We may also ask for changes in procedures to prevent similar problems occurring.

Examples of some complaints we have considered

A complainant received a penalty charge notice for entering the charging zone without paying the appropriate charge. He made representations to TfL, which accepted the representations and wrote to him cancelling the penalty charge. However, by mistake, it continued to enforce the penalty charge. Despite the complainant telling TfL that he had a letter saying the penalty charge was cancelled, TfL registered the charge as a debt in the county court. Following our intervention, the penalty charge was cancelled and TfL agreed to pay the complainant £100 to recognise the time and trouble he had been put to by its mistake.
A complainant made a congestion charge payment of £10 for travel in the charging zone the following day. However, his plans changed and he did not do so. The day after he had intended to enter the zone he asked TfL to refund the payment. TfL refused and he complained to us. The legislation allows TfL to refund monthly or annual payments which a motorist is not going to use: it does not allow the repayment of unused days in the past or single prepayments. We found no fault in TfL refusing to refund the complainant the single unused prepayment.
Believing the complainant was responsible for a number of outstanding Penalty Charge Notices, TfL instructed an Enforcement Agent to recover the amount it believed was outstanding. The complainant provided confirmation from the Driving and Vehicle Licencing Authority that he was not the person responsible but enforcement action continued. TFL agreed to apologise to the complainant and pay him £100 for the avoidable distress it had caused him.

Other sources of information

Transport for London has considerable information about the charging zones on its website at www.tfl.gov.uk/roadusers/congestioncharging

London Tribunals website at www.londontribunals.gov.uk has details of the legislation and appeal process.

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

October 2023

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