A few months back I wrote about how I had been tricked by copycat website “British Passport Services” (BPS). I wrote about how they had been threatening to take me to court and how I was just one of many people who were currently being harassed by them regarding unfair demands for payment. It is reported that the website owner, Richard Howard, has issued 750 county court claims against people who have used his sites. He’s making a lot of money by bullying innocent people who he has duped with his website.
Well I had my day in court. And I won. Richard Howard was ordered to pay me £113 pounds and to his credit he wrote me a cheque there and then. I’ve already banked it – we’ll see if it bounces. It felt rather wonderful.
I am not a lawyer. I am not legally qualified. My case does not set precedence and other judges may see things differently. All I do in this post is share my experience about a specific case. I am reporting on events but I am not advising on whether any other case may win or lose. If you would like legal advice you should contact the team at www.legalbeagles.info. These are good people who have supported me and are supporting about 30 others to defend themselves in court against UK Services and Support.
Why this case is significant
This is the first time Richard Howard has turned up in court to defend his company UK Services and Support which operates www.britishpassportservices.co.uk, www.ukpassportoffices.co.uk and various other websites. In both previous cases he submitted a written defence but did not turn up in person.
It is also the first time he has been beaten using a central argument that could be applied to all victims of British Passport Services to date. The previous two court hearings (both of which UK Services and support lost) were argued based on the fact that either UK Services and Support did not provide the services correctly (the appointment was booked on the wrong date) or that the defendant could not possibly have gone on the website themselves (a friend did it for them without consent) so arguments about the legitimacy of the services were redundant.
Until either UK Services and Support make changes to their websites or an ASA ruling against their UK Passport Offices website is overturned (this is currently being appealed by Richard Howard) my central argument that www.britishpassportservices.co.uk is misleading will be applicable to anyone who has used their site.
My case sends a clear message to parties on both sides that UK Services and Support can be beaten in pretty much all similar cases.
Richard Howard also admitted, on record, that he has never won a full judgement against anyone. All the cases he refers to have been default judgments (where defendents don’t respond to court papers so the court rules against them by default) or they have been out of court settlements (where the two parties agree to negotiate on say 50% of the bill to avoid going to court).
Whilst at the court hearing Richard Howard also admitted to me in private that both Amanda Kirkman (their legal/compliance officer) and Sam Harris (the main customer contact person) are fictitious characters. He said “there is nothing wrong with using an alias”.
How a court hearing in the small claims court works
I called the court the day before to confirm the time of my case. I also asked if Mr Howard had given notice that he wouldn’t turn up as he had failed to turn up to the previous two. I was told that Mr Howard had called to say he wouldn’t attend so I was not expecting to see him. Instead I was planning to ask the judge to strike off the case since Mr Howard did not give me the required 7 days notice of his non-attendance.
I arrived at the court offices and was asked to report to the court usher. (I may have misremembered the job title since I was pretty nervous at the time but let’s call him the court usher for now). The court usher made a note that I had arrived and gave me instructions to wait in the waiting room. I was about an hour early so had a long wait but Richard Howard turned up, to my enormous surprise, only a couple of minutes before the hearing was scheduled to start. Only now has it occurred to me that perhaps Mr Howard was trying to double bluff me so that I didn’t turn up? If so he doesn’t know me well. So much for asking them to strike off the case, I was going to have to fight it.
When the judge called us in we were invited to take a seat each. The judge very clearly explained the format of the hearing. Richard Howard, the ‘claimant’ would speak first. He would deliver his version of events and his evidence for why he was owed the money he was claiming. Then I, the ‘defendant’ would have a chance to deliver my version of events and my case that I did not need to pay. After this we would both be given an opportunity to respond to the others initial statements in turn. Finally the judge would make an adjudication. This may be that one side or the other is wholely successful or it may be somewhere in the middle, for example that the defendant should pay some of the bill but not all of it.
In our case we started at 11am and by 1pm it was obvious this court hearing was going to take a longer time than expected so we adjourned for lunch at 1.30pm after both Richard Howard and I had an opportunity to give our versions of events. We returned at 2.10pm and were invited to each provide some closing statements and we were asked to keep it brief and not repeat anything discussed in the morning.
At around 3-3.30ish (I wasn’t watching the time) after we had both given our final statements we were asked to leave the court room again while the judge made her decision.
We were invited back in at (I’m going to guess) about quarter to four. The judge gave a very detailed account of both Richard Howard’s arguments and my own and then she made her own judgement and explained the reasons why she had made her decision.
I’d like to say that our judge seemed very smart, diligent, clear, tenacious and fair.
My defence was threefold.
- I believed that I could prove that britishpassportservices.co.uk (BPS) was a misleading website, and the Richard Howard was aware of this yet did nothing about it.
- Even if it is deemed the services were clearly advertised, I tried to cancel the contract almost immediately but BPS made this unreasonably complicated and continued to deliver services in full knowledge that I did not wish to receive them.
- Even if the services had been well advertised and not cancelled, the services that UK Services and Support offer were clearly bogus, not worth paying for or not delivered.
While on the day I probably spent about as much time on all three of these points I will mainly focus on the first point in this blog post because by itself it would have won me the case and it will be relevant to any other defendants who have used BPS whereas not everyone will have tried to cancel right away like I did.
My case that BPS is a misleading website
The ASA adjudicated that www.ukpassportoffices.co.uk was misleading in September 2014, two weeks before I used www.britishpassportservices.co.uk:
I demonstrated to the judge on my laptop that UK Passport Offices and British Passport Services were nearly identical websites offering the same services, for the same prices, operated by the same company and as such I argued that this judgement is relevant to my case. Others may choose to take screenshots of both websites but using a laptop and my phone as an internet hotspot worked quite well for me.
Of course Richard Howard argued that UK Passport Offices is a totally unrelated issue as my case is with British Passport Services but the judge agreed with me.
I drew the judge’s attention to the ASA assessments and recommendations:
- The website contained “a great deal of text” and that existing “disclaimers could easily be overlooked”.
- Tables explaining what services were actually offered were below calls to action such as buttons to “BEGIN PROCESS” or “Apply Online Here” so were likely to be missed. This should be changed.
- The ASA considered that “many consumers would be unfamiliar with the reference HMPO” and that it should not be used.
- Leaving important details in the terms and conditions was not sufficient because consumers are unlikely to read Ts and Cs simply for booking appointments at a passport office.
- The website should make it clear that an additional fee for the passport will need to be paid at the passport office.
- There should be prominent disclaimers alongside all calls to action that included: a statement that passports are available directly from the .gov.uk website and provide a link. It should specify the cost when booking directly from .gov.uk. There should be a statement that BPS charges a separate fee for their application verification service and specify the cost. This disclaimer should also appear on the final page of the transaction.
I then demonstrated how neither website (UK Passport Offices or British Passport Services) had taken on board any of these recommendations.
Richard Howard argued that the ASA case was seriously flawed and that it was under review. He provided a letter to demonstrate his point but the judge pointed out that the letter said that while it did indeed indicate the ASA case was being reviewed it did not directly state that the ASA case was flawed and that no judgement about the ASA case would be made until the review was complete. She also said that until the review was complete the ASA case should be considered. I have not yet been provided with a copy of this letter.
At this point the judge further quizzed Richard Howard on exactly what the services were and how www.britishpassportservices.co.uk made this clear to the customer. She found it hard to understand what the services were both from the website and also from Richard Howard’s explanation.
To further demonstrate the point I provided various pieces of evidence that demonstrated that not only did the ASA feel the website might be misleading, but the sheer number of people who were being misled demonstrated that this was being borne out in practice.
I cited a bunch of examples from the media including the discussion thread here that is 500 comments long with people mostly complaining about BPS:
The legal beagles forum with 1400 comments:
As well as:
And finally, Richard Howard’s own website that lists the various default judgments and out of court settlements that he has won. (Although he makes out that these are full judgements, which he admitted wasn’t true on record in court). I pointed out that through the courts he claimed about 160 payments in under a year. That’s roughly one every other day, totalling over £30,000 and it doesn’t even include the money paid to him by the majority of people who paid before any court papers had been sent out:
(Note: Since first writing this post Richard Howard has removed these details from his website. Probably in part due to how badly it backfired on him in court. While I’m very happy that people’s personal details are no longer displayed online, both I and the team at LegalBeagles have a copy we can provide if others need this for evidence.)
I also pointed out that in the letter of intended court action that he sent me (on Christmas Eve!) he states that the most common objections are that customers claim they cancelled, that the website is a scam and that the website was not clear.
While the judge was not very keen on my use of media reports she felt that the list of claims that Richard Howard himself posted online and his own admission about the most common objections clearly demonstrated that many people found his website misleading.
The judge asked Mr Howard why he had not made changes to his website given how obvious it was that people did not understand it. He stuttered a response about the ASA judgement being flawed, his belief that the existing disclaimers were sufficient and his adherance to various guidelines for third party websites, but the judge was not convinced.
My case that I cancelled
As I said earlier, I will not go into detail on this point as it won’t be relevant to everyone. I made the case that I informed British Passport Services by phone and by email that I wished to cancel. While Richard Howard acknowledged this in his evidence he claimed that I had not cancelled using the correct process. The judge made it clear that a company cannot enforce that a customer jumps through an unreasonable number of hoops to cancel a contract and that if a customer makes a reasonable effort to cancel the contract it is unreasonable of the company to claim that they did not cancel.
In short, the judge claimed that my phone call alone would have been enough to cancel the contract. (However it was hard to find evidence to place the time at which this occurred.) As a result, any services that happened after the time I cancelled could not be charged for. But in fact, given my first defence, he could not charge for any of it anyway.
If anyone else has tried to cancel make sure you can evidence it. Ideally, send an email.
My case that the services were bogus
Again, I won’t go into this in detail. (Just look at the services he was claiming he had delivered in my previous post about BPS.) The judge determined that filling in a form was not a service. Booking the appointment was a service but filling in a form was an instruction from a customer to BPS of what they wanted. Hence, BPS could not charge for the service of allowing a customer to fill in a form.
The judge also felt that the details checking service was not a real service since they were only checking the form that the customer had filled in on their website, not an actual passport application form. The question was put to Mr Howard what he would do if the customer was not eligible for a passport. Would he refund them?
The combination of the latter two arguments meant that the maximum BPS were able to claim off me would be about £20, since it could not be proved very much had actually been delivered before I cancelled. However, this was all redundant as the website was misleading in the first place.
Mr Howard’s terrible mistake
One shocking piece of evidence that Mr Howard submitted was a letter, apparently from the passport office, that apologised to BPS. Apparently someone had used BPS and then gone to the passport office and got angry when they were told that the fee they had paid to BPS did not include the passport fee. Apparently a passport office employee called BPS a scam website. This letter was an apology because, of course, BPS is a totally legitimate company.
The issue is, that the version of the letter Richard submitted in his witness statement was almost identical to a letter he posted on his website. (At the time of writing you can see it here.) However, while the letters contain almost exactly the same text and contain the same reference number, the dates are different and there are two differences in the entire body of the text, one spelling mistake and another minor difference. They are also signed by different people.
When I pointed this out the judge was very concerned as it implied that Richard Howard may have supplied fabricated evidence. At first Mr Howard had claimed there was only one letter. Later on he claimed that there must have been another letter that he was not aware of. His explanation that they were so similar was that it must have been a copy paste job on the part of the passport office. The judge called this out and said that due to the minor differences that couldn’t be true.
Mr Howard suggested that if we did not believe that the two letters were both genuine we should ask the passport office to confirm this. I assume that the crew at legalBeagles, the BBC and the Mail on Sunday (all of which have been in touch today) will be quick to sort that out.
Nonetheless, while this was troubling it could not be confirmed in the court room. This did backfire in a different way for Mr Howard as the judge said that if she is to believe his claim that there were two similar cases, this meant that twice, in consecutive months, someone had turned up at the same passport office and had thought that they had already paid the bill for their passport. This further demonstrated to the judge that many people have been misled by Mr Howard’s website.
In summary, I won the case because I managed to prove that the website was misleading. The judge grilled Mr Howard quite hard about the fact that the ASA had made some very clear recommendations and that it was obvious that many people were getting the wrong idea. She also explained how she personally would be confused if she came across the website herself. On these grounds it was deemed unreasonable for UK Services and Support to claim that I owed them money.
Richard Howard was ordered to pay me 1 day of lost earnings (a fixed court rate of £90) and travel expenses etc. In total I received a check for £113.
I’d like to share as much information about this case as I can. Therefore, please find below the witness statements and evidence that was presented in court. If you are fighting BPS I hope you find this info useful.
Richard Howard’s witness statement: View or download
Richard Howard’s evidence: View or download
My witness statement: View or download
My evidence: View or download
Additional evidence I brought to court following reading Richard Howard’s witness statement (I brought three copies. One for the court, one for me and one for Richard Howard): View or download
Official court transcript of judgement by Deputy District Judge Ragget: View or download
ThisIsMoney reports on the three wins so far (and uses one of my photos!) I have to admit, Richard Howard’s response is frankly hilarious. I strongly recommends that he packs in his passport business and gets a job as a comic writer. And check out his raw data and unofficial biography too.
BBC Radio 4 programme You and Yours leads with a report on Richard Howard’s failed attempts at court action.
There are also many other reports about Richard Howard’s company and websites that do not feature my case all over the internet.
I would like to take this time to say thank you to a very large number of people.
David Payne who wrote this post on which.com. When I received my letter of intended court action and I had to decide what to do your post and the comments on your thread showed me that I was not alone.
Sharon Coleman and the team at Legal Beagles. Without your patient advice, even when I went a did stupid stuff like starting facebook groups, I would not have created as strong a case. I certainly would never have found the ASA adjudication.
Shari Vahl from BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours. Without this report you did on BPS I would not have known I could trust Legal Beagles. Also, it was nice to speak to you this morning regarding your upcoming broadcast. (Sorry Sharon, I love your site now, but in the days of PPI and “Accident at work?”, especially while my guard was up after being scammed by BPS, I was a bit nervous about people approaching me online and offering free legal advice!)
Jeff Prestridge from the financial Mail on Sunday who made me laugh with this report and who (as far as I am aware) coined the term “Passport Profiteer”. It was nice to speak with you this morning too.
Claire, for being there the day I got my first court letters.
My employer, Redgate, for being really supportive. Many of my colleagues have given me reassurance and the company offers a great benefits package to all it’s staff. This included a service that I was able to use to call a free hotline and speak to a qualified solicitor which was very useful.
All of the other victims of BPS including Mark Dilliway (who has started this petition), Linda, Billur, Mylo, Ian, Vicki and all the many others. Your support kept me going at times when I was close to packing it all in, because wouldn’t it be so much easier if I just paid. For those of you who have court cases coming up, good luck. I hope this helped.
Finally, Emma, I love you. You have been amazingly supportive, even when you didn’t think I could win. You made me think about things differently at times and you reminded me not to be so confident when I needed to be more careful. I’m sorry for being such a boring grouch and spending so much time upstairs buried in the study reading all about ASA adjudications and unreasonable contract terms. I promise to be less boring for the whole summer.
It’s not about the money
This has never been about the money, a couple of hundred quid either way doesn’t make up for the stress, hours, frustration and loss of earnings. If I was an isolated case I would have just paid to save myself the trouble. This has been about standing up to an internet pest. It has been about not funding and supporting his abusive and bullying company. It has been about doing what I can to make it harder for him to deceive others. It has been about making the web, which I love, a slightly better place.
However… for those who are interested in how I’m going to spend the money. I’m going to use half of it to buy a nice bottle of single malt whisky and I’ll stick a picture of Richard Howard’s face on it so no matter how stressful my day has been, I can salute him and thank him for the drink while I remember this feeling. The rest I’m going to donate to Legal Beagles. Not once have they asked me for a penny for their services, but they make their money off subscriptions. I, for one, will be proud to support their site.
What to do if you have been caught out by a copycat website
Don’t just base a defence just on what I have written. There is no such thing as precedence in the small claims court so just because my judge sided with me it does not mean that all judges would in the same scenario. Also I’m sure Richard Howard will have learned from this case just like we all have and I’m sure he’ll think of some new scheme to win a case. I’m equally sure the Legal Beagles crew and our investigative journalism friends will be right on top of him when he does.
If you are in a similar position contact Sharon (Amethyst) and her team at www.legalbeagles.info and they will be happy to help you out based on their legal expertise and experience fighting BPS, not once, but dozens of times. To date, they are undefeated. It’s 3 nil with about 30 cases pending.
As I mentioned above, receiving court papers is scary. There is certainly a temptation to pay up. Many people find it much easier to find the confidence to fight if they know they are not alone and that support is out there. If you have a similar story please leave a comment to reassure other victims of BPS who stumble across this blog post. It was the comments on posts like this that gave me the reassurance and incentive to fight. I’d love to do the same for others.