McDonald's fines UK drive-thru eaters £125 for staying more than 45 min

McDonald's restaurants in the UK have put license-plate cameras in their drive-through parking lots. The cameras watch how long you eat for; if you go over 45 minutes, a fine is sent to your house automatically, charging you £125, and if you don't pay, the fine goes up and up and up.
The company that manages McDonald's car parks, Civil Enforcement, also works with a string of other blue-chip companies. BP used it until recently to monitor some of its petrol station forecourts.

One motorist, Jamie Thomson, told the Guardian of his experience at a McDonald's near Gatwick: "I ordered a burger, chips, a doughnut, coke and coffee. I sat in my car eating my lunch, and listening to the radio. After eating, I continued to sip my coffee for a time, and ate my doughnut. Then I left. All perfectly normal." He says he was in his car for about an hour.

Several weeks later, he received a letter from Civil Enforcement demanding £125, or £75 if the charge was paid quickly. At first Thomson, a businessman from Sussex, did not even realise that he was being charged for spending too long at McDonald's, as the notice gave only a partial address.

Link (Thanks, Shawn!)


  1. I don’t know how it works in the UK, but my school was recently on the losing end of a situation like this over here in the states – Apparently, here, only the government has the right to impose arbitrary fines on you. Private property owners have the right to kick you out, or forcibly remove anything (including vehicles) you have on their property and charge you the amount it cost as compensation, but they can’t just decide “You owe this much money because you weren’t supposed to be here”.

    Either way, I don’t know what lawful excuse their using to collect the money over there, but it seems like any case that goes to court would be weak. Interested to see how this turns out…

  2. This isn’t unusual. Here in Manchester, they have actually been ticketing people. But it’s not consistent. One guy got a fine, but his colleague who he met for exactly the same amount of time in the restaurant didn’t get a fine at all.

    The car parks are on McDonald’s land but they are “policed” by private car parking firms, a common practice by many companies with parking. Similar practices are adopted by supermarkets, out-of-town shopping centres and so on. Sometimes, depending on the car parking firm, cars can be clamped and a huge fee charged for their release.

  3. That’s fucked up on so many levels. And obviously totally illegal, to the point of qualifying for a felony. I think the Civil Enforcement’s unavoidavble court case will prove interesting. I’m not familiar with UK’s legal system: what will they be sued for, exactly?

  4. Parking “Cops” are just getting more and more ridiculous. In Chicago we had the “Lincoln Park Pirates” in the 70’s and 80’s who basically stole people’s cars and held them ransom. Now we have other freebooters who will slap a metal immobilizer on your car and charge you 125-200 bucks to get it off if you disobey the parking regulations, like crossing the street or leaving the shopping center lot for even an instant. One lot even hired spotters to track people parking in the lot and make sure they went into the “correct” stores. Sheesh.

    I understand wanting to keep your lots free for customers, especially in high traffic areas, but there are alot less ridiculous ways of going about it. Just think of it as one more reason not to eat McDonald’s “food”.

  5. I can’t see this would stand up in court. What McD seem to be saying is that when you park in one of their car parks you enter into a contract under which you agree to pay £125 if you stay more than 45 minutes. Now, this is an incredibly onerous contract, and I suggest it would be unenforceable on both common law and statutory grounds.

    To begin with, there’s strong authority in English case law that the more onerous a contract is, the more effort you must take to make its terms clear to the other party before they accept it – especially if acceptance is implied by doing or continuing to do something rather than signing an agreement. As Lord Denning famously said, in a case that was in fact about car parks (Thornton v Shoe Lane Parking), a really onerous clause “would need to be printed in red ink with a red hand pointing to it before the notice was sufficient.” What notice are McD’s giving here? A case also with strong parallels to this is Interfoto v Stiletto, where extravagantly punitive charges for returning hired photo originals were held to be unenforceable through lack of sufficient warning.

    Then there’s statutory law, principally Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations. This legislation provides a range of reasons why a contract term may be unenforceable, including inequality of bargaining power (Joe Public v McD) and excessively harsh penalties for breach.

    It’s up to Mr Thomson, but in his shoes (driving seat?) I’d be straight down to my solicitor to get a strongly worded Get Lost or See Us In Court And Lose letter written.

  6. An unfair fine (in amount and warning given) but why is this posted under the CIVLIB categories? This is a consumer rights issue, not a civil liberties issue.

    Unless BoingBoing is making the automatic presumption that consumer = citizen and corporate power = governmental power, which is grim but inaccurate and uncalled for.

  7. I’ve asked my brother who is a UK lawyer about this… My gut feeling is it’s total nonsense to the point of being fraudulent – sending people invoices for things that don’t exist in the hope that they’ll pay is a well known scam.

    Law courts exist to protect people from abuses, not assist in carrying them out and the judges know this.

    I think the virtual-clamping firm will change tactic and attempt to settle the case before it gets to court.

  8. Schmod@11:

    They will attempt to recover the money by court order, which can include distraint, which means sending bailiffs to your house to collect goods to the value of the fine. It gets expensive after a while. Where council parking control schemes are involved it’s often better to pay the fine and then dispute. These private deals are on shakier ground though, and can often be settled out of court. The private parking contractors in London are like rats and there’s nothing so pleasing as seeing one of them get ticketed by another.

  9. All car park companies such as this need to do in the UK, is to put up visible signs informing parkers of the charges. After that, they can basically do whatever the hell they like. Car park firms and their practices are almost totally unregulated here in the uk.

  10. Should some “bailiff” come snooping ’round my place looking for things of value to nick, there’d be some breaking of kneecaps, there would…

    (Does sound as though some irregulars need to make midnight visits to those cameras, and render them inoperative. Expensively inoperative.)


  11. This has actually been proved as illegal in the UK (along with private wheel clamping.) As you say, they can remove your vehicle from their property but they have no right at all to fine you or to immobilize you – Sue McDonalds for millions!!! Yeh!!! Also, this sounds like yet another reason to boycott this scummy company!

  12. I don’t know how McDonalds survives in the UK A Big Mac Extra Value meal is over twice the average price in the U.S. and many times more in any airport. And now this?

    I haven’t been to McDonalds in years, and it’s dirt cheap here. Who eats there in the UK? The children of plutocrats?

    I think a White Castle franchise might do well over there. That’s real American fast food. And they soak up alcohol like no other foodstuff. “Sliders and chips, Gov’ner!”

  13. Is the firm who is trying to apply these charges licensed to do so in any way? eg. do they give a professional association and license number with the demand?

    I don’t see that a TV camera / digital numberplate system could reliably identify people with disability permits and exempt them, which is a condition for being licensed.

  14. Shrdlu @17: All food is expensive in the UK. A Big Mac and fries from McD’s is cheaper than cod and chips from the local chippie.

  15. @7 It’s a civil liberties issue because this only operates with government complicity – the law in England requires you to register your data with the DVLA, and the DVLA are apparently selling on that data at £2.50 a throw so these sharks can operate and find out who to send the demands to.

    Interestingly, searching on, the company is overdue on it’s corporate tax declaration, and in 2006 claimed to have an income below the level where it needed to make any audited filing. I think the director could be struck off for fraud quite easily with some digging.

  16. Nelson @ #19:

    Is your local Tesco twice as expensive as my local Safeway? I’ve never really thought about it. If so, is it because of US agricultural subsidies, the VAT, the EU, economy of scale?

    I wonder if the UN, the Economist et al. take into consideration the cost of food when considering the best country for “quality of life.”

  17. Thomson asked Civil Enforcement for photographic proof of his “offence”, but was told he would have to pay for a photo.

    Somewhere Terry Gilliam is shaking his head with a rueful grin.

  18. This seems incredibly illegal. Shouldn’t there have to be some sort of agreement or contract or at the very least posting of the time limit? Is 44 minutes free?
    If they want to limit parking times it would seem that the easiest thing would be to do what parking garages do and charge for parking. Of course that would probably be disastrous to McDonald’s real business and result in a drop of sales.

  19. The real flaw I see in McDonald’s logic is that this man and anyone he can convince will never go to McDonalds again. That has to be worth more than 125 pounds. If I ever ate there I would stop myself.
    If your in the UK eat some damn fish and chips ya fools.

  20. Shrdlu @ 21:

    1) Safeway was also a supermarket in the UK up until a few years ago when it was absorbed into Morrison’s. I’m assuming you’re referring to the American chain, which split off from the British one in the 80s. I generally find Morrison’s to have better prices, and to be cheaper than Tesco (especially for produce)

    2) Goods in the UK are generally disproportionately more expensive than everywhere else (and this isn’t entirely due to the VAT). Also don’t forget that Minimum wage is quite a bit higher than in the US, that income taxes are a bit lower, and that the government provides free healthcare to its citizens. Taxes may be higher, but unlike the US, European governments generally invest much of their tax revenue in ways that benefit their people. I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say that the UK’s “quality of life” is the best in Europe, but the higher price of food is a tradeoff that might or might not be worth it depending upon how you view the situation…

    3) McDonalds knows that it cant get away with selling the crap it does in the US at inflated British prices. As such, their food actually is somewhat better/slightly healthier in the UK. Depending upon your location, McDonalds may or may not be cheaper than going to a traditional “chippie”, although most people, myself included, prefer the chippies.

  21. I’m quite astonished that the gov’t would give out the information that way. Among everything that’s been about the legality of this situation, I believe this runs contrary to EU data privacy directives.

  22. Schmod @ 25:

    I would have preferred to use Piggly Wiggly as an example instead of Safeway, but that makes us Americans seem plain silly.

    I’m trying to think of ways our quality of life is better beyond cheaper food and petrol. All I’ve come up with thus far is we use few vowels in our words, which saves time when commenting on blogs–and I’d take Mexican fast food over fish ‘n’ chips any day of the week.

  23. We had something like this here in San Diego a while back. The towing companies got nailed in a major way, at least one was put out of business and the owners faced criminal charges. The problems they had were two-fold:

    a) They were (ostensibly) issuing tickets and imposing fines. The parking code gives the property owner the right to have vehicles towed, but does not grant any right to ticket or fine. If the property owners want to issue fines then they have to call the real cops and have a real ticket written, and the money from it won’t go to the owner or the towing company.

    b) The law requires the towing company to be authorized by the property owner (or their legal representative) to tow a specific car. Blanket contracts to tow fail in two ways: they don’t authorize specific cars, and the law doesn’t allow the authority to authorize to be delegated. So when a towing company hooks up and tows a car from a business parking lot without a piece of paper signed by the business owner or manager, they aren’t towing under the law and can be charged with auto theft.

    I’d have to wonder whether the rules in the UK are similar. If they are, McDonald’s and Civil Enforcement may have a problem on their hands if the guy has a competent attorney.

  24. Once again, we see the jackboot of Free Enterprise on the face of the consumer.

    Or something.

    Here in Massachusetts, some of the friendly neighborhood McDonaldses have signs posted inside warning that you can take up to twenty minutes to eat your meal, but no more. I’ve never seen enforcement of this. The table of old guys who come in regularly to chew the fat (so to speak) is occupied when I come in, and the same guys are there when I leave.

    I’d like to think that when word of this gets around, the company will backpedal rapidly to disavow the whole policy, and blame it on some overzealous local manager. I don’t know how tight the chain of command is, but I expect there’s somebody on a high level there who doesn’t want the image of Farmer McDonald with a shotgun shouting, “Git off moy laaaand!”

  25. I’m sorry, but the British, like we Americans, deserve eveything they get. First it’s cameras to protect you (magically) from terorists, then….

    Stuff like this doesn’t happen in democracies where people actually participate in the democratic process, and are constant thorns in the sides of their politicians.

    To quote one pissed off Brit: “Get off yer arse!”

  26. Simplehuman,

    The McDonald’s on Clark near the Post Office and the Wiener’s Circle does this. If you decide to park in their lot and then don’t go into McDonald’s or even go into McDonald’s and then leave but don’t go to your car immediately, the boot you and you have to pay a fine (I think it’s $125, but I don’t even own a car)

    I think this is the same group of people who ran the Lincoln Park pirate operation.

  27. Moon: that’s a different scenarion than the one described in the post, where it’s MacDonald’s customers that are treated in this disgusting manner.

  28. Why wouldn’t a McDonald’s want people to stick around? I’ve never seen a lack of parking nor a lack of seating. If you can afford it, why not allow people to congregate comfortably? Goodness gracious! They might do it again! Heavens!

    Don’t these places care about people?

  29. In my (US) state, there’s a BURGER DUMP chain store that pays a man to sit in a car in the parking lot, and issue private “tickets” to people who park too long.

    I used to eat twice a week at BD; as soon they gave me a “ticket” (when I finished eating, I ran across the street for 5 minutes), I quit buying there. I also told the “ticket” people to stuff it.

    Three years later, that one BD has lost $3000 of business from me. In 17 more years, that one store will have lost $20,000 in business … not counting any of their other stores.

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