10 March 2015
The spirit and the letter of the law
I've always wanted to take a case to the Small Claims Court. As a consumer campaigner, I advise people to do it all the time, and I've often theatened companies with such action myself in the past. I've only ever done so if I feel I've been wronged, and once the suggestion of a legal action has been mentioned, every company I've ever challenged has backed down. Until now.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my misadventures with First Great Western, who refused to refund me for a second ticket I was forced to buy, even after I was able to provide proof that the original ticket had never been printed or used.
After escalating my complaint through the company, and even onto Passenger Focus, FGW were still not willing to go any further than a goodwill gesture covering half of the additional £109 that I spent.
Abusing the letter of the law
And after sending the matter onto the Small Claims Court, they continue to fight the case by the letter of the law. Technically speaking, you must have a valid paper ticket - or an electronic version via the operator's own app - to travel. But these rules were of course designed to stop people being able to fare evade. Train companies are now very comfortable, however, abusing the rules to penalise honest customers that made a mistake.
I understand I am probably on a hiding to nothing by taking the matter onto court. But it gives me the chance to continue highlighting this abuse - which affects many thousands of passengers in the UK every year.
In FGW's response to my court claim, they point out that I'm lucky I wasn't prosecuted. By simply forcing me to pay the full peak time ticket price on top of my orginal fare, they were already showing lenience. I'm lucky I didn't end up with a criminal record.
Any company that had to fight hard to win and keep its customers would not be so arrogant. But train companies have no such competitive pressures. If I want to travel from London to Cardiff, I've got few realistic options other than to travel with FGW - which is why they are comfortable showing contempt for their passengers.
The next step in my journey will be to use the Small Claims Court's mediation service - which is a step short of a full court hearing. This will present FGW with one last chance to be reasonable before, presumably, the letter of the law kicks in and I lose the final hearing.
I recently met Anthony Smith, the chief executive of Passenger Focus - an organisation that is campaigning for fairer treatment of customers and a change to the rules that govern train passengers. I'm told that progress is being made. Fairer Finance is in full support of the Passenger Focus campaign, and we'll be writing to the transport minister to add our own voice to the calls for change.
Personally, I'd like to see something akin to the Financial Conduct Authority's "Treating Customers Fairly" regime implemented across the travel industry. TCF are principles that overlay the rulebook. Regardless of whether FGW are right by the letter of the law, it's impossible for them to argue that they are being fair.