What does the small print really say? That you’ll never win

Many people will have enjoyed reading the news last week that Linda Edwards, a 58-year-old artist who lives in Saddleworth near Oldham, has won a five-year legal battle to get an unfair parking ticket rescinded. Justice had finally been done in spite of the rapacious demands of an intractable parking services company, it was proclaimed. “I hope from this others will have the courage to stand up to these companies,” said Edwards. It was described in several newspapers as a “David versus Goliath” struggle.

This description is flawed. For a start, Goliath died. Intussen, Excel Parking Services Ltd is still, according to its website, managing “over 210 car parks”. (I’m going to hazard 212.) The awful truth is that this giant is something even Goliath wouldn’t stand a chance against because Goliath was just a tall human and humans, unlike parking services companies, inevitably die.

Linda Edwards’s mother, whom she was meeting for dinner in May 2016 when she got the original parking ticket, has since died. And one day Linda will too. The 53-year-old woman who started this battle has spent at the very least 10% of her remaining lifespan fighting Excel Parking Services Ltd, merely to restore the non-indebted status in relation to it that she already enjoyed when she fatefully swung her Range Rover into Bury New Road car park in Manchester five and a bit years ago.

I’m not saying her struggle wasn’t worth it. She clearly believes it was and I’m happy for her. I’m saying it doesn’t show what everyone is claiming it shows: that if individual people stand up to large organisations that make unreasonable demands, they will prevail. It actually shows the opposite, which is a far more important, if chilling, message.

We have to look at the relative costs involved on both sides. By costs I’m afraid I don’t just mean money. In money terms, Edwards won – she didn’t have to pay the fine. But it doesn’t feel like Excel Parking Services Ltd lost too badly, even by that measure. The financial blow will have been painlessly absorbed. I mean painless in two ways: in the sense that the money involved is trivial for a large company and in the greater sense that companies cannot feel pain.

Linda Edwards can feel pain. “When it was nearing the court date I was having sleepless nights," sy het gese. “At times I was brought to tears over it as they wouldn’t let up.” Those are her costs, as well as the time it all took: the years of waiting and the hours of work preparing her case for Manchester county court where she represented herself. The worry, the stress, the time. Excel Parking Services had no equivalent costs: its work was done by humans it paid and it felt no stress and lost no meaningful time.

It seems that Edwards is pleased, which is nice. She clearly derives a sense of satisfaction from having stuck to her guns and, on some level, this must compensate for the stress and time expended. “I don’t like to be taken advantage of," sy het gese. “I kept reminding myself justice has to be done. I wasn’t going to be bullied.”

But justice shouldn’t only be available to those with exceptional powers of perseverance. What Edwards did is sufficiently remarkable that we can be certain most people in a similar position wouldn’t do it and neither should they be expected to. So her actions are not a solution to anything – they’re an index of the size of the problem. Only under freak circumstances can some companies be made to acknowledge what is fair.

To be honest, Excel Parking Services still hasn’t really acknowledged it, as you’ll see. Eerste, I’d better give you a few more details about the events five years ago. What apparently happened was that Edwards failed to buy a pay-and-display ticket for the excellent reason that the issuing machine was broken. So, as instructed by a sign in the car park, she rang up to explain the situation and was told that someone would come and fix the machine. Then she went off for dinner. When she came back, an inspector was issuing her with a £100 fine. Cue half a decade involving increasing fines, a debt collections agency and a court case.

In place of contrition, an Excel spokesman said: “There had been a clear breach of the terms and conditions of parking as no pay-and-display ticket had been purchased. Egter, in light of the circumstances of the case, the judge decided that the call made by Ms Edwards to our helpline represented, on this occasion, an intention to pay once the machine had been repaired.”

I have several problems with this unapologetic response. To my ear, the phrase “the judge decided” is less than respectful of judicial disinterest. There’s an offensive implication of whimsicality in the use of that verb, soos: “Table seven have decided they want their starters and main courses at the same time.” I’d say the judge “realised” or “found” there was an intention to pay, but at the very least the judge “ruled” that there was. And while we’re on that sentence, the phrase “on this occasion” was pretty sour and suggested that, in future, such leniency should not be expected, as if a driver’s failure to pay is in no way mitigated by the impossibility of doing so.

Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps that’s in the “terms and conditions” that the spokesman also mentioned. That’s what irks me most about the statement. No one ever knows what’s a breach of the terms and conditions because no one reads them. Each of us clicks hundreds of tick-boxes on websites claiming to have read terms and conditions but we haven’t. They’re absurdly long and we don’t have time. Life is literally too short.

Yet we are repeatedly forced to lie that we have, constrained by our finite lifespans into a relationship of dishonesty and guilt with any company with which we seek to trade. It is in the sheer length of these great virtual scrolls of “terms and conditions” that corporations most contemptuously flaunt the fact that they have all the time in the world, and we don’t.

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