Costly car chase for my stolen number plate

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The Independent Online
Jason Rowe, 30, is creative services director with the advertising agency Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters, which he joined in 1990. His career began in the accounts department of Bartle Bogle Hegarty in 1986 after studying production techniques at the London College of Printing. Today his clients include Abbey National, the Health Education Authority and Toshiba.

"In 1960 my father bought a personalised registration plate - SE7 - both as a gift and an investment for my mother, Shirley Eaton. By the time my parents moved to France in 1988, the "mark" - as they're known in the trade - was worth pounds 17,000. They gave it to me to look after in their absence, and I paid pounds 80 to have it transferred to my Fiat.

When I was given a company car, I paid another pounds 80 to have the mark transferred again. But disaster struck when in March 1992 the car was stolen.

The battle that followed is a good lesson for anyone thinking of investing in a personalised registration plate, for I became a victim of the small print and spent the next couple of years fighting for rights which, as it turned out, I didn't actually have.

The first bit was fairly straightforward. I reported the theft at my local police station, filled out the relevant insurance forms and rang the Cherished Number Plate Section at the DVLC to find out how I could recover the mark. They said I would have to wait 12 months from the time the car was stolen before it could be reissued.

When the year was up I rang back again. I had several conversations with different people which got me absolutely nowhere, so I wrote a letter. The response was very worrying: it said that I had lost the right to the mark and that the insurance company was now the legal owner.

I went back to the insurance company, which wrote an appropriate disclaimer saying it had no interest in the mark, and I sent it to the DVLC, assuming my problems would be over.

Six weeks later I got a reply reiterating that I had lost my right to display the mark. It said the DVLC was not prepared to get involved in what it considered to be a civil matter. However, if I wanted to write back enclosing pounds 5 they would release the details of the person who by this time had acquired it. At that point I felt I had no option but to get solicitors involved.

It subsequently transpired that the car had been recovered in December 1992 and sold, together with the number plate. Since then, the plate had been transferred to a number of other vehicles and was now in the hands of someone who had bought it for pounds 6,000.

I couldn't see how this could possibly be legal and urged my solicitors to pursue the matter.

Meanwhile, in a letter to the man who is currently in possession of the plate, the DVLC confirmed that "Mr Rowe had previously lost entitlement to display the mark; indeed, the mark was passed through several hands before you 'purchased' it." Understandably, he refused to return it, though he did offer to sell it back to me. I refused on a matter of principle to pay for something which I regarded as already mine.

My solicitors advised me to issue a court injunction preventing him from selling the plate, which I duly did. Unfortunately, under the terms of the injunction, I was liable to compensate him if he suffered any financial loss as a result, so when he received an offer for pounds 8,500 I was forced to lift it. By this time I had spent around pounds 2,500 on legal fees, and I was totally frustrated by what appears to be a loophole in the system whereby innocent persons are left without any legal redress.

Thankfully the Department of Transport took the matter seriously, and after looking into it, sent a sympathetic letter to my MP explaining what had happened.

"The essential point is that a mark is assigned to a vehicle and remains with it until the vehicle is scrapped (or exported) or its transfer is authorised to another vehicle. Entitlement to a mark passes with the vehicle from one keeper to the next. Mr Rowe recognised the consequences in the declaration he signed when agreeing to the transfer from his private car to one leased by his employer," it continued. (This of course is why you should always read the small print.) "His company car was registered in the name of the leasing company and there appears to have been no agreement to safeguard Mr Rowe's interest in the mark."

Following settlement of the insurance claim in June 1992, the DVLA was notified that interest in the vehicle had passsed to the insurance company. "In the meantime Mr Rowe had apparently enquired of DVLA about recovering a registration mark from a stolen vehicle and was told that the registered keeper could apply for its return after one year if the vehicle had not been recovered."

The report was entirely accurate; it's just that I hadn't realised I was no longer the registered keeper. So when the DVLC received an application for a registration document for the stolen car, in accordance with normal procedures it informed the police, who interviewed the applicant and subsequently removed the stolen marker from DVLA's records. Entitlement to the mark had passed with the vehicle, which had never been registered in my name.

The moral of the story is that if you invest in a personalised registration plate, take professional advice before transferring it to a company car. In any case, make sure it is insured against theft. It won't compensate for the loss of something of sentimental value, but at least you'll get your money back.

Corinne Simcock would like to hear from readers who also have stories to tell of bad deals, to help others avoid them.

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