Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Yesterday turned out to be one of those irritating days. I went to my car on the street after work to find it clamped. Such an incident is annoying at the best of times. However on this occasion it was even more so as I had dutifully paid for my ticket at the meter and had returned to the car well in time.

So probably what had happened is that the ticket, which had been placed on the dashboard had fallen off due to a draft when shutting the door. So technically you could say that I was at fault and that the clampers were thereby justified in their action.

However while accepting this, I feel it unreasonable that I should be then expected to pay the fine. Having retrieved the dislodged ticket I had clear evidence to show that I was in credit when the clamp was imposed.

From my perspective, normal justice should have accepted that waiting for the car to be declamped was more than sufficient penalty for this inadvertent failure to strictly comply with the rules. After all, I had paid in good faith and returned to my car within the allotted time on the ticket.
However to my considerable annoyance, absolutely no flexibility was shown. Though reference was made to an appeals procedure that I could follow if still dissatisfied, I was left in no doubt that my car would not be declamped till the €80 fine was paid.

Fortunately in this case I was in a position to pay the fine. Also I had no pressing engagements which limited the degree of inconvenience involved. And in fairness the car was declamped without a significant time delay.

However the point I am making is that there is something inherently unsatisfactory about a procedure, where effectively in the case of any dispute, the consumer is considered guilty until proven innocent.

Though in my particular case I perhaps should have doubly checked to see that the ticket was still on the dashboard after closing the door, I can envisage other possible scenarios where the same problem could have arisen.

For example in a busy parking area it would be quite frequent for cars entering tight spaces, to bump into the car behind when reversing. Such an action could then dislodge the ticket (which has no adhesive quality). Also it is possible that someone could break into the car resulting in the ticket blowing off the dashboard. It is even possible that on an extremely windy day that the ticket could move (with the doors locked). And all these scenarios relate to just one possible cause of dispute (where the ticket is not visibly displayed!)

Now the point is this. Say in fact my ticket had fallen as a result of another car reversing into the parking slot in front inadvertently hitting my front bumper! As a consumer I would have been completely innocent of any short coming. However the same inflexible procedures would have been applied with the car not being removed until the fine had been paid.

There is something very unsatisfactory about this especially when the authority involved (in this case Dublin City Council) accept so little liability for their own failures with respect to consumer service. For example it is not uncommon to find a meter is not functioning. Also it is somewhat frustrating to arrive at a meter with the correct designated coins only to find that they are not accepted by the meter.
Also surely given the rule requiring visible display of a parking ticket e.g. on the dashboard of the car, the ticket should be provided with some adhesive.
For example on a windy day, it may continually fall from the dashboard requiring the frequent opening and shutting of a front door (which in itself constitutes a major traffic hazard on a busy street).

So in many ways the service provider fails the consumer. However whereas the provider reserves the right to penalise the customer (for an unwitting technical infringement) the consumer enjoys no similar rights with respect to the more blatant failures of the provider.
So quite simply the principle applied by the provider is "guilty until proven innocent".

An even more blatant example of this is provided by the toll operators.

Some time ago I received by post a fine from the toll company here in Dublin for an alleged infringement with dire warnings of the further penalties pending if I refused to pay up promptly.

The problem was that I was nowhere near the road in question (where the alleged incident occurred) on the day of the "offence".

Though 100% innocent in this case I was then forced into a laborious procedure to prove my case. Eventually after much discussion the toll company accepted that it had got the number plate identification wrong (with another car actually involved). So finally after all this hassle, I received a letter from the company conveying "the good news" that my appeal had been found successful.

However from my perspective I should never have been required to get involved in an appeals process in the first place (as I was 100% innocent all along). Yet, I was forced into an unsought for procedure with the adjudication of the outcome solely at the discretion of my accuser. Then having caused such unnecessary trouble, the accuser saw no reason for providing any form of compensation.

Again, there is something inherently wrong about this whole process and it should not be allowed (at least without the requirement of compensation for a consumer fined in the wrong). Furthermore I found out that my own incident was far from an isolated case with some 10,000 other motorists receiving fines in error from the company during the year. Apparently what happens is this! When the registration number is not clearly identified, the toll company apparently charges a motorist having a number that might possibly fit. So for example, say they are not sure whether a particular number on the plate is a 4 or a 9 they will try their luck by picking one of these numbers as correct. So, in some cases - because of uncertainty as to precise movements on the day, or to avoid unwanted hassle - it might successively collect the fine off a driver (who is actually innocent of any offence). However happily from its perspective, even when challenged and ultimately forced to admit to being in the wrong it accepts no liability with respect to innocent drivers.

Once again this is a case of "guilty until proven innocent" operated however in an even more blatant manner.

Thre practice is clearly wrong and the consumer should be protected through legislative measures obliging the company to change such procedures.

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