Businesses team up to battle English laws on penalties dating back to Magna Carta

Lawyers are in a legal slug-fest in the Supreme Court trying to determine if the English law on penalties has any place in the modern commercial world

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It reads like a tricky question from a post-graduate law exam: what does the owner of a Billericay fish and chip shop, a car park owned by British Airways Pension Fund, the world’s largest advertising company, and a Middle East marketing executive, all have in common?

The answer is that their squads of lawyers have spent the last three days in a legal slug-fest in the Supreme Court trying to determine if the English law on penalties, which has roots all the way back to Magna Carta, has any place in the modern commercial world.

While Talal El Makdessi from the Lebanon and WPP, a global company worth billions, are battling over a complex multi-million pound 2008 share deal, Barry Beavis, the former owner of the Happy Haddock chippy, wants justice for the £85 “rip-off” fine he claims he was forced to pay after exceeding a two-hour limit in a Chelmsford car park three years ago.

Nearly 30 lawyers, including leading barristers and solicitors from Britain’s top law firms, plus an army of back-up staff, have marshalled arguments over the three day hearing that will allow seven Supreme Court justices to clarify or dismiss rules on penalty payments in commercial and consumer contracts.

john-magna-carta-hulton.jpg
The laws date back to the Magna Carta (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For Mr Beavis, who crowd-funded the costs of taking his case to Britain’s highest court, and whose lawyers are taking no fees, there’s more at stake.

Outside court 1 of the Supreme Court he said “This isn’t about me being fined 80 quid. This is a big issue for millions of motorists. It’s about them.”

In April 2013, Mr Beavis drove his vehicle into a retail car park near Chelmsford railway station. The facility was owned by the BA pension fund and operated by a company called Parking Eye. Twenty signs warned there was a two-hour free period, and a charge of £85 if that was exceeded. Mr Beavis over-stayed by 56 minutes.

In front of Lord Neuberger and six other justices, Mr Beavis’s counsel, John de Waal QC argued that ParkingEye ignored any payment system that helped motorists know what they were getting into. He said motorists faced what he called “a carmaggedon” if this “punitive” business model was repeated across the UK. He said ParkingEye had simply “monetised free parking”.

Jonathan Kirk QC, for the parking company, denied Mr Beavis had been treated unfairly.

Although the Appeal Court ruled against him earlier this year, Mr Beavis said he was “extremely confident of winning this time.”

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said “It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of this case.”

The court will deliver its judgement later this year.