Tough Luck or Rough Justice?

John W. Raine

Why don’t more motorists who are unsuccessful in challenging Council-Imposed Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) take their cases further to independent adjudication at the Traffic Penalty Tribunal?

Probably most readers of the paragraphs below will, at some time or other, have had the misfortune to incur a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) for a parking or a ‘moving traffic’ contravention (e.g. driving in a bus lane); and will have experienced the feelings of frustration and self-reproach (at being caught out) and exasperation, and not a little anger, (at the seeming intransigence of the council in persisting in enforcing the penalty charge, despite the written explanations and apologies proffered in mitigation).

The legislation governing civil parking and traffic reregulation includes provision for those unhappy about such enforcement decisions by councils to take their cases to appeal with the Traffic Penalty Tribunal (TPT) – a national body comprised of lawyer adjudicators who review the evidence presented by the appellants and by the councils before deciding whether to allow or dismiss each appeal (with a very similar body covering London – London Tribunals).

But how many motorists are aware of this opportunity to appeal against their PCNs ahead of their first encounter with council enforcement teams? Indeed, how many read about, and sufficiently understand, the information provided by councils in the letters of ‘Rejection of Representations’ to be able to make an informed choice between settling the penalty or pursuing the case further with the Tribunal and its independent adjudicators?

More than a decade ago we undertook research on these very questions and identified a high level of ignorance among those who had had their representations against PCNs rejected by the councils. Since then, undoubtedly the public profile of the Traffic Penalty Tribunal has been raised through media reporting and features, and indeed by involvement in the making of the popular TV series ‘Parking Mad’ and such like, But despite such opportunities having been taken, and the on-going efforts of the Tribunal to make the actual process of appealing as straightforward and simple as possible (for example, including ‘on-line’ via the Tribunal’s new web-portal) a new research project has recently found once again high levels of unawareness and misunderstanding[1]. Indeed, as Table 1 below shows, among various reasons cited by our sample of ‘non-appellants’ (i.e. motorists who, despite having had their representations to the councils against the issuance of PCNs rejected, did not then take their cases further by appealing to the Tribunal), some 18% of responses indicated being unaware of their rights in this respect.

More than that, half the survey respondents (53.5%) indicated that did not recall seeing within the ‘Notice of Rejection of Representations’ letters they had received from the councils the ‘boxed information’ (compiled by the Tribunal) explaining the right of appeal and how to exercise it should they so wish.

In many cases, we learned from responses to questions in a series of telephone interviews we conducted with non-appellants for further insights to the questionnaire survey findings, this was because the ‘boxed information’ invariably appears towards the end of the Councils’ letters – on pages 2, 3 or even 4 – following several paragraphs of text covering of the relevant legal provisions and the Council’s reasons for rejection of representations. Many such respondents acknowledged that, feeling dismayed and angered at reading the head-line of their letters (‘Notice of Rejection of Representations) and the initial sentences, they ‘switched off’ and never properly read the letter in full or failed to absorb the further information provided – including, we deduced, the Tribunal’s ‘boxed information’.

Table 1. Reasons cited for not submitting appeals to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal

Reason Percentage of all responses[2]
I felt that the Tribunal would simply back the Council’s decision 50.0%
I accepted the Council’s evidence of the contravention 42.9%
I did not want to risk losing the 50% discount 42.9%
I thought the process would be too time-consuming 32.1%
I’d had enough of the whole thing (the PCN) 25.0%
I did not know I had any further right of appeal 17.9%
I did not think my case met any of the grounds for an appeal 17.9%
I thought that the process involved would be too daunting. 14.3%
I didn’t understand what I had to do to make an appeal 7.1%

As part of the same research project, we reviewed a sample of such council letters and, while recognising that, compared with the findings of our previous research, most showed signs of effort having been made to make their letters reasonably reader-friendly and potentially intelligible for lay recipients, we still found most to be deficient in certain respects – respects that we concluded would still be more than likely to account in part for the overall low proportion of respondents claiming to have seen or absorbed the Tribunal’s ‘boxed information’ about appeals.

First, we noted much inconsistency in the use of language through the ‘NoR’ letters – including between the language of the Council-written paragraphs and those in the ‘boxed information’ from the Tribunal – and, indeed, within different paragraphs by the Councils’ text. For example, sometimes, the letters referred to the ‘Traffic Penalty Tribunal’, sometimes to the ‘Independent Adjudicators’, and sometimes to the ‘Parking Adjudicators’ (including in cases of ‘moving traffic’ contraventions, such as driving in bus lanes). Moreover, while many members of the public could surely be excused for failing to understand the finer distinctions between words like ‘appealing’, ‘challenging’ and ‘making representations’, we noticed how councils, too, frequently used such terms interchangeably; for instance describing their written representations as ‘appeals’ and yet subsequently referring to motorists’ right of appeal to the adjudicators.

Second, we sensed a tendency on the part of the councils to prioritise ‘payment’ of Penalty Charges over the right of ‘Appeal’(‘well they would wouldn’t they’, one might say!). For example, given the legal framework that allows appeals to be made and dismissed before payment is finally due, we suggest that it would be more appropriate to phrase the key decision statement option as: ‘You must now appeal or pay the penalty charge’, rather than, as all the examples we reviewed chose to do, namely: ‘You must now decide whether to pay or appeal’. A small detail, perhaps; but one of some significance, in our view, when considered alongside other pay-promoting (and potentially misleading) phrases in the NoRs such as: “The penalty charge is now payable” and “This must be paid before the end of 28 days beginning with the date of service of this Notice” – two phrases that many, especially novices to the system, would interpret as meaning only one thing: that ‘the time has come to settle the charge and that failure to do so could result in serious consequences’.

Some of the examples of phraseology concerning the entitlement to discounts for early payment (with the law allowing for the offer of a 50% discount) also seemed to us to imply precedence of ‘payment’ over ‘appeals’. One that we spotted, for instance, used a curiously unctuous form of words: “If you elect to appeal to the TPT, the case will be heard at the original charge amount [£60]. However, on this occasion the Council is willing to offer the option to pay this charge at the discounted amount of £30. This offer is only available if payment of this discounted amount is received within 14 days of service of this Notice of Rejection”. Here, the three words [that we have underlined] seemed to us to suggest a special favour was being offered, when, in reality, the discount would be available to all such recipients.

Third, and perhaps most surprising of all, given the legal public authority status of council, we were struck by the apparently limited attention devoted to effective communication through ‘design and layout’ of the ‘NoR’ letters and, indeed, the presence of a number of basic grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors. While the shortcomings in design and layout would hardly aid readability and comprehensibility; the spelling, punctuation and grammar errors (‘SPAG’ in the language of school teachers) would surely only serve to undermine any sense of respect for, and confidence in, the Councils’ competence to adjudge representations fairly and properly, as the law requires. In this regard, for example, we noted many missing apostrophes (e.g. “the Councils [sic] decision”; and “the Tribunals [sic] website”; some instances of unduly convoluted phraseology; split infinitives, and to cap it all, an instance of the job description of the authorised signatory presented as “Principle [sic] Officer”!

Unsurprisingly, then, for us, high on the list of conclusions and recommendations from the research is the prioritisation of a careful ‘redesign and revision’ of the ‘Notice of Rejection of Representations’ letters issued by the councils (preferably to an agreed standard of wording and formatting), and specifically to enhance the chances of recipients seeing and understanding the information about their statutory rights of appeal.

It was at least reassuring recently, when presenting the research findings, to gain a strong sense of support for such a recommendation from an audience of local authority representatives involved in traffic and parking enforcement. But why, we wonder, has it taken so long for the shortcomings to persist?

[1] Raine J W , Snow A and E Dunstan (2016); ‘To Appeal or Not To Appeal…Motorists’ Awareness and Experiences of the Traffic Penalty Tribunal’; University of Birmingham: Institute of Local Government Studies.

[2] Percentages add up to more than 100 because respondents were invited to tick as many of the reasons cited on a pre-coded list as they felt appropriate.


John Raine is Emeritus Professor of Management and Governance in Criminal Justice at the University of Birmingham.  He has been an academic member of staff at the Institute of Local Government Studies since 1979, during which time he has served two terms as Director as well as Director of Postgraduate Research, and Director of Postgraduate Studies. He was founder director of the University’s brand-leading Public Service MBA programme and of the MSc in Public Management. 

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