'System failure? There has been no system failure!'

Times Online, August 04, 2006
On a recent trip to Ireland, I acquired a speeding ticket. It was a quiet morning and, anxious to arrive at Cork airport in time to check in for my return flight to Bristol, I depressed the accelerator pedal rather more than was necessary, not least because when I eventually arrived at the airport, it was to find that my flight was delayed.

I was not to know this, of course, and so, having glanced in all directions to ensure that there was nothing anywhere near me, I increased the speed of my nippy little hire car to 133km/h. Fast, yes – in fact, 33km/h over the limit of the dual carriageway on which I was travelling – but it was dry, the road was empty, I was in a hurry. Not much by way of mitigation, but better than speeding on busy road in the wet.

The Garda seemed to agree with this perspective when they appeared from a hideaway and caught up with me. "Are you late for a plane?" said the male officer, as his female comrade sat quietly in the car. "I’m afraid I am," I confessed, adding a prompt apology for driving too fast.

The officer looked at me sympathetically, took my licence and did whatever it is that police officers do in their cars when they take your licence. He returned with a ticket, which he gave me with the words: "You’ll probably hear nothing, but you might get a fine. Keep it handy for the rest of the way." I thanked him and drove sensibly for the remainder of my journey, pondering the precise meaning of "keep it handy" and relieved that a fine appeared to be unlikely.

My relief turned to dismay when a summons appeared a couple of weeks later. I have received one or two of these in my time, and know that they cannot be ignored. This one may have hailed from the Republic of Ireland, but it ran true to domestic form in telling me that I had 28 days to pay a fixed penalty fine of €80, or else.

The "or else" included an increased fine of €120 if I did not pay within the 28 days and the possibility of prosecution. Neither was a fate I relished, and anyway it was, as they say, a fair cop. Accordingly, I filled in the form with my Visa card details, and despatched it to arrive at the Garda’s Fixed Penalty Office within 28 days.

Soon, though, things took a turn for the worse. I received a letter stating that my payment could not be accepted because I had not provided a valid Visa card number. Moreover, because of this apparent failure to pay within 28 days, the fine would be increased to €120. I groaned and cursed my idiocy, but decided I had better check the form, for after all, we lawyers love nothing better than perusing forms. To my joy, the Garda were wrong! I had correctly entered my Visa details. I rang the Garda’s Fixed Penalty Office to explain the situation.

After the inevitable hour’s torture of listening to sundry confusing pre-recorded options, I was put through to a pleasant-sounding woman by the name of Elizabeth. She explained that the problem lay not with my Visa card but with the fact that all payments had recently been outsourced, with the unfortunate consequence that "the system" could not accept Visa payments. I said it was rather unfair that I should be penalised for the system’s failure and have to pay an extra €40. Elizabeth agreed and said that she would have a word with Sergeant Mike. The line went dead but she came back on to tell me that Sgt Mike said to send the form back with Mastercard rather than Visa details, and all would be fine.

"So I’ll only have to pay €80?" I asked.

"That’s right," Elizabeth said.

I did as I was told only for another letter to arrive in response. This one stated that the payment could not be accepted because I needed to pay €120, not €80.

Exasperated, I rang the Garda again. This time my interlocutor was less than amenable. "System failure?" she shouted. "What do you mean, system failure? Everything was outsourced months ago and there has been no system failure!"

I said that I was only repeating what I had been told by her colleague. "I’m trying to help you!" she cried, adding "Wait there!"

Once again, I was put through to the dulcet tones of my friend Elizabeth. "I’m sorry about this," she said, "I’ll have a word with Sgt Mike."

All was quiet and then Elizabeth returned. "I’ve had a word with Sgt Mike," she said, "he’s going to ring you on Monday. It’ll be fine and he’ll tell you what to do."

That was over a week ago, but, to date, Sgt Mike has not called. I fear that before long the system will decree that I attend court in Dublin or pay an astronomical fine. So please, Sgt Mike, if you’re out there, give me a call. I promise to keep it handy – and to pay the €80.