Few things in life rile us quite like getting a motoring fine. Whether for a parking infraction, a speeding offence or straying into a bus lane, the resulting penalty notice invariably hurts. After the initial anger has subsided, we can usually recognise we were at fault, even if the penalty seems harsh.
But what happens if you're convinced the ticket was wrong? How do you appeal, and is it actually worth your time?
In the 2009/10 financial year, around 2.1 million fixed penalty notices were handed out by the police in England and Wales. These are issued for criminal offences such as driving while using a mobile phone and not wearing a seatbelt, but the vast majority (1.1 million) are for speeding.
In Scotland, just under 50,000 speeding tickets were given out in 2010.
However, fixed penalty notices were eclipsed by the 7.14 million penalty charge notices issued, just in England and Wales, in the year to April 2010. These are tickets issued by local councils that have applied for civil parking enforcement powers, which give them the ability to do what only the police were previously able to: slap transgressors with a fine.
These figures include violations such as driving in bus lanes at the wrong time, but the bulk are old-fashioned parking tickets.
Nine out of 10 parking fine appeals successful
Fighting your corner
What isn't so old-fashioned is their method of catching us. The traditional traffic warden has been joined by cameras since the rules changed in 2008, and with it a new rapaciousness has been seen in local authorities' approach when it comes to ticketing. In one damning appeal case, the motorist had parked for just 17 seconds when the CCTV car snapped the licence plate and set the ticket process rolling. The appeal was upheld.
So clearly, fighting your case is important; and plenty of people do. In the financial year 2009/10, a whopping 2.34 million penalty charge notices were contested, with almost half (1.16 million) being successful.
Five parking excuses that won't wash
1. The fine is a rip-off. I'm not paying that much!
2. I stopped to answer a phone call - I didn't want to break the law.
3. The yellow line didn't have the painted T-bar on the end, so it was illegal.
4. The yellow lines had faded.
5. I was programming the sat nav.
Tickets issued by the police are harder to fight, which might explain why, of the 1.1 million speeding fines issued in the 2009/10 year, 97% were paid.
We'll deal with contesting police tickets later on, but we start with fighting your council. And if you're wronged, you absolutely should fight, says campaigner Barrie Segal, a London-based accountant and owner of appealNow.com, which helps wronged parking victims.
"I don't think enough people appeal," he says. "For a start, it doesn't cost a thing. The only drawback is that if you lose at the adjudicator you also lose the 50% discount."
How to appeal
There are two methods of appealing. If the ticket has been stuck under the windscreen wiper, you make what's called an informal representation to the council, which is basically a letter or email stating your case.
Camera fines arriving through the post need to be contested formally and details of that will be on your ticket. If the council won't rip it up, and you're adamant you're in the right, you can take the case to the parking adjudicator.
There's one for London (almost five million of the country's 7.1 million penalty charge notices are issued here), and one for the rest of England and Wales, based in Manchester. In Scotland, you appeal to the Scottish Parking Appeals Service, and in Northern Ireland it's the Parking Enforcement Processing Unit. It's here you'll find the human element so often lacking in the councils.
Yaffa Nathan, 61, from Ilford in Essex, discovered this when she appealed the parking fine she'd received in the London borough of Barnet. "I'd had all these deterrents through the post from the council which were designed to say 'back off'", she told Moneywise. "But when I went to the adjudicator, it was fine - the experience was very fair, very pleasant, and it was done very quickly."
She opted for the personal hearing, which she admits she might not have had time for were she not retired; but you can choose the postal option, or, for the Manchester adjudicator, the chance to state your case over the phone.
Yaffa won her case largely because the council didn't put anyone up against her - which is quite common. In England and Wales in 2009/10, councils didn't contest adjudicated appeals in just over a quarter of all cases.
Standard charges for the main offences
Penalty charge notices (from councils):
• Parking fine outside London: £20-£105*
• Parking fine in London: max £130*
• Towing away (council): £105, plus £12 a day storage charge.
Fixed penalty notices (from the police):**
• Exceeding statutory speed limit (SP30): three
points & £60
• Failing to comply with traffic light signals
(TS10): three points & £60
• Using a mobile phone while driving (CU80):
three points & £60.
** police fines can be more at the court's discretion
How i'm cutting the cost of parking
So when might you have a case?
A few excuses that won't wash were listed in a report by the London Parking and Traffic Adjudicators (PATAS): stopping to look at a map; asking for directions; answering a mobile phone; or going to the loo.
And while they have sympathy for misleading signs, they aren't much impressed by technicalities.
The same 2009/2010 report attacked websites claiming that you've got a case if the yellow line you parked on doesn't end in a painted T-bar, theoretically making it illegal. That was "a view not shared by adjudicators", according to PATAS.
However, they will rip up a ticket if they think the warden hasn't waited long enough to gauge what the motorist is doing. After granting an appeal against Tower Hamlets council in 2009, PATAS said "a motorist is permitted sufficient time to read the time plate to see if they are allowed to park".
And the Manchester adjudicator cancelled a parking ticket given because the driver had stopped briefly to change places with the passenger.
Lack of adjudication
The adjudicators' very human judgements are unfortunately not available to those given a ticket by a private parking enforcement company. The lack of adjudication over private companies has been slammed by the AA, which is campaigning for tighter controls on this ever-growing industry.
The situation is that by parking you enter into a contract with the enforcement company. Overstay and you break that contract, incurring a fine. The trouble is that it's not always clear what the rules are. "The companies don't have the same attention to detail as councils, their signing is not standardised, and some are deliberately vague," says AA spokesperson Paul Watters.
If you don't pay, the result is an increasingly threatening series of letters. However, the AA advises that if you believe you were wrongly ticketed and the company won't tear it up, you should ask to be taken to court, where your grievance can be heard by a magistrate.
Court is also the only option for contesting police-issued fixed penalty notices. And that's a tough job, says Emma Patterson, a specialist motoring lawyer at Patterson Law.
If you're saying you weren't speeding, then you're questioning the equipment. "If you are challenging the reliability of the device then you need a laser specialist at £1,000 a go to come with you, and most people aren't up for that fight," she says.
One who did challenge successfully was Harry Baker, a commercial photographer from Whitby, North Yorkshire. "The policewoman said her handheld radar clocked my Peugeot 106 at 38mph in a 30mph zone in January 2008 but I'd checked my speed moments before and it read 29mph. I contested it as a matter of principle," he says.
"My lawyers helped establish the police hadn't undertaken the correct procedures regarding the testing of the equipment prior to its use."