CHERWELL District Council has been rapped by a watchdog who found residents and visitors to the area were not being given information about challenging parking tickets.

It comes after a case in which a woman - referred to as Mrs X - who used a council-owned car park, was wrongly fined by its outsourced parking company, APCOA.

APCOA, which manages car parks across the district including Bicester, Banbury, and Kidlington, had not informed Mrs X properly that she could challenge the fine in Magistrates’ Court.

Instead, the company instructs a debt recovery agent to write to drivers to encourage them to pay rather than face court action.

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Because of this, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman ultimately found that people using Cherwell District Council’s car parks could have been denied the right to challenge parking fines through the courts.

The report by the Ombudsman said: “We have seen the letters the agent sends, which use wording that suggests they are enforcing a debt and say further action would be taken in the county court not the Magistrates’ court.

“The letters are threatening in tone and we do not consider them a “light touch” alternative to court.”

The only way someone can formally challenge an Excess Charge Notice (ECN) is at Magistrates’ court and residents have always been able to go to court, but the Ombudsman found that this wasn’t made clear in the letters that the recovery agents were sending out.

In fact, the last time a case of an unpaid ECN in the Cherwell District had been taken to court was in 2011.

The council is responsible for its operator and so at an executive meeting on Monday, a change to its Car Parking Enforcement Policy was proposed and approved.

Now APCOA will remind customers of outstanding ECNs before referring them directly to the council who will then decide whether to take the case to court.

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A spokesman from Cherwell District Council said: “Following the Ombudsman’s report the council’s executive approved a change to the car parking policy. APCOA, which runs the council’s car parks, will now no longer refer unpaid Excess Charge Notices to collection agencies; instead, they will be referred back to Cherwell District Council, and the council will consider whether it is in the public interest to take the case to Magistrate’s Court.”

If a person is convicted, a criminal conviction will be recorded against them, the Magistrates’ Court could issue a fine of up to £1000 and they could be ordered to pay the council’s costs incurred in prosecuting the offence.

Conservative Councillor Dan Sames, lead member for clean and green, put forward the proposal on Monday.

He said: “It is right and proper that we respond to the Local Government Ombudsman’s decision. We are confident that our new car parking enforcement policy reflects the findings in the Ombudsman’s report.”

Labour Councillor, Sean Woodcock, also agrees that the change is necessary.

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He said: “I believe that it is right for the Council, not a subcontractor, to decide if it wishes to take anyone to court for car parking infringements. So we are happy with the changes but disappointed that they came about as a result of rather serious failings by an outsourced service provider.”