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I ended up facing court after my car’s licence plates were stolen

<span>Photograph: Jens Rother/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jens Rother/Alamy

In June, my car number plates were stolen. I reported it to the police, who confirmed they had been used on a vehicle that filled up with fuel at two garages, then had been driven off without payment. The second garage sent me photos and a demand for payment, but withdrew it when I explained.

I then got another demand, for £83, from a Shell garage in Harrogate. I responded by phone – no one called me back – then in writing. When I didn’t hear, I assumed the matter was dropped. Now I’ve received a letter from the Registry Trust stating that a decree (a county court judgment in England and Wales) has been issued against me in a sheriff court. I had no advance contact from the court, or Shell; the decree seems to have been granted without any investigation.

The Registry Trust says it cannot remove my name without the court reversing this decision. The sheriff court has not responded to my request for this to be done. I find it outrageous that a big business like Shell or its operators can simply pitch up in court unchallenged and obtain legal rulings against an innocent individual.
AG, Stevenston, Ayrshire

Licence-plate theft is surging: 54,400 were stolen last year, according to figures obtained by motortrader.com, and your car was one of several targeted in the area that night. The implications can be grave for owners, as criminals display the plates on similar vehicles so they can commit offences without detection.

The Harrogate garage is operated on behalf of Shell by Waugh Petroleum, which says it did not receive your responses to its demand for payment. So I turned to the sheriff court to ask why you were not given the chance to mount a defence. This is where an unpleasant situation turns alarming. The court discovered that the decree had been issued in error after the Registry Trust was wrongly advised that the claim against you had been upheld. The case had, in fact, been dismissed. The court declined to comment, but blamed “human error”.

It’s not unheard of for decrees and county court judgments to be issued without the defendant’s knowledge, but I have never come across one being issued by mistake. The potential impact is appalling. A judgment can affect your ability to get credit, including a mortgage, a tenancy, mobile phone contract or a job, for up to six years. I advised you to obtain reports from the three main credit reference agencies and you say so far they are unaffected.

The sheriff has signed an order to dismiss the action with no costs to either party, and the Registry Trust has been updated. You received a bland apology from the court for “any inconvenience and distress”. Five days after the court confirmed its mistake, you received a summons to a hearing with the same case number in March. It turned out this, too, was a mistake. Shell says: “Retailers and dealers at our stations are responsible for debt collection. We cannot comment on the procedures they follow.”

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