Amy Jenkins: Go on – take on those Goliaths of bureaucracy

There’s nothing worse than that cold sinking feeling of impotence
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The Independent Online

There's regular parking rage and then there's extreme parking rage. This week a man called Barrie Segal managed to get an entire Westminster parking zone declared "illegal". It was a matter of incorrectly positioned signs, apparently.

Barrie is a dogged and persistent character who runs a thriving website dedicated to getting people off their parking tickets. He says he's also author of "the funniest book about parking tickets ever written" – a dubious honour – but I doubt he's in this for the laughs exactly.

One wonders exactly what kind of double yellow injustice he never got over. One wonders what made him dedicate his life to raging against this particular machine.

Did he suffer – as in one example related on his website – from having his car lifted off a naked road so they could paint a yellow line under it, set it back down and give him a ticket? Was it his rabbit hutch that had a red route ticket slammed on it? Was he there when a man was fined for being over time in a car park despite being dead at the wheel?

I like the story about the yellow line being painted – but I don't actually believe it. In principle I'm on the side of the parking authorities. Caring about the environment, I support any measures that discourage me and others from driving and I'm pretty much in favour of draconian parking restrictions.

For all that, there's still a disobedient part of me that smiles inside when I think about Barrie's pedantic victory. As he says on his website: "For years councils have unfairly penalised motorists for trivial contraventions like parking slightly over a parking bay and have said 'that's the law'. Well, this is the law (incorrect signage) and the council failed to comply and must suffer the consequences."

I'm smiling because the issue here isn't parking – it's victory over bureaucracy. We've all beaten our heads against those intransigent bureaucratic brick walls and there's nothing worse than that cold sinking feeling of impotence.

There's something about faceless bureaucracy. It can set off such big feelings: the world's an unjust place – I'm mincemeat – what's the point of it all? Boy, can it get you down, make you low. And yes – justice is probably accessible – but at what price?

I know, for example, that if I choose to pursue a particular matter, every time I get an obtuse and obfuscating bureaucratic letter, I'll be white with fury. And worse than that, it's going to take hours and hours of my time and far too much headspace. Isn't it better to swallow an injustice? But then mightn't the undealt-with resentment foster horribly inside – become cancerous... even literally? It's hard to decide. Am I a David who'll take on a Goliath? Or do I just want a quiet life?

Last year my car was towed from a loading bay at 2am. It wasn't obstructing anything or causing any kind of problem. But it shouldn't have been in the loading bay, so it was a fair cop, I guess. Next day, I went along to the car pound and paid my £260. But a few weeks later, when I read my credit card statement, I saw I'd been charged twice.

For nearly a year I called and wrote to both Transport for London (who'd towed the car) and Partnership card, the John Lewis MasterCard company. Neither would repay me. TfL – after several months – "advised" me that the credit card company had made the error. The credit card company said that they had paid TfL twice and that I had to raise any disputes within 30 days of the statement and, as I hadn't, tough shit.

So this morning – because I was going to write this piece, and as an experiment – I called a friend of mine who is a warrior against bureaucratic injustice. It's his hobby – it gets his adrenalin pumping. He likes to go 10 or 12 rounds with a global corporation... before breakfast. He comes out bloody but usually triumphant. I told him I'd been pursuing this matter for nearly a year. He said he'd have my money by lunchtime.

He set up a conference call so I could hear how he goes about it. His technique is to speak to top-level management as quickly as possible. He called the credit card company and marched inexorably on felling person after person – quoting statutes and trading standards – until he got to the very head of disputes management.

It turns out that the Statute of Limitations gives you six years to recover your money and no individual company's "terms and conditions" can override the law of the land – whatever it says in the small print. Within two hours he'd not only got the money credited to my statement – he'd got me an extra £75 for the inconvenience.

So hooray for my David who knows how to get Goliath. I did get my justice in the end – but it shouldn't be as hard as this. What about the people who don't know the letter of the law and who really can't afford to be done out of £260?