While it may seem a trivial matter for those without children, the availability and use of parent and child spaces in supermarket car parks is often a sore subject. Designed with extra room around the car, these spaces are there to offer those with small children the extra room they need to load both their offspring and shopping into the car without breaking their backs.

However, thanks to the generous room on offer, and the fact that they are often conveniently located near the entrance of the store, parent and child parking spaces are often abused by lone shoppers looking to get in and out as quickly as possible.

It’s a problem that can cause parents unnecessary stress every time they go shopping: “It’s disgusting, it’s as bad as using a disabled space,” commented one mother we spoke to.

Even parents’ champion Mumsnet.com has found issue with the misuse of spaces. Justine Roberts, co-founder and CEO, said: “There is lots of disgruntlement on Mumsnet at people without children parking in parent and child spaces, as negotiating a screaming baby and a truculent toddler across a busy supermarket car park clearly doesn’t add anything to the attraction of the weekly shop.”

However, it isn’t a blanket problem. Motors.co.uk conducted its own observations on supermarkets in the Gosport area and found that the abuse of parent and child spaces was based on a number of factors, not least of which was the weather. As soon as the heavens opened, the number of non-parents observed using spaces reserved for parents shot up, with shoppers looking to get out of the rain quickly.

The location of parent and child spaces within a car park also plays a factor. At the same time of day, two supermarkets – Morrisons and Asda – located within a mile of each other, showed vast differences in the use of parent and child spaces. Parent and child parking abusers at Asda, where the spaces are situated across the car park from the entrance, were one in 10, compared to one in four at Morrisons, where the bays are located adjacent to the entrance.

So, are supermarkets actively enforcing the correct use of these bays? Well, not really. The approach differs from company to company. Morrisons store manager David Bryant admitted there were no specific car park wardens employed, and that car parks were monitored intermittently by trolley attendants.

“There is nothing we can really do except place a little card on their windscreen politely asking them not to park there in future,” he said. “And this is provided that they have been seen entering the store without children in the first place.”

Tesco expressed similar, simply stating: “We work hard to accommodate all of our customers’ needs, and provide a significant number of disabled and family car parking spaces at our stores. We ask that our customers are considerate of the clearly marked bays, which are reserved for blue badge holders and families, and our colleagues will always act to help those that cannot find the space they need.”

Asda, on the other hand, do take proactive steps to enforce correct parking at their supermarkets, issuing a £50 Parking Charge Notice to those found in contravention of the bays, though again it does depend on a person being witnessed to have entered the store without a child.

Parking Charge Notices are another bone of contention when it comes to ensuring the correct use of parent and child spaces, as there is some legal ambiguity surrounding their enforcement. A motor industry legal expert we talked to said the following:

“A Parking Charge Notice is often mistakenly referred to as a fine. It is in fact a notice by which the owner of the private land on which you’ve parked will seek to enforce a contractual term that you either expressly or impliedly entered into when you entered their land, for contravention of any of their terms and conditions.”

Effectively, unlike street parking tickets, in which the police or council fine you for contravention of a particular statute or bylaw, a PCN falls under contract law. And therefore a number of other factors, such as the placing and wording of signage around the car park, as well as the figure quoted on the notice can all be used to avoid paying up.

Indeed, PCNs have a much lower success rate when chased through the court by the issuer. And given the cost of pursuing them, it is often not financially viable, meaning the offending parker gets away with it.

There may be some light at the end of the tunnel, however. A change in the law in 2012 has meant that where previously a supermarket would have to prove who was driving – a near impossible task – now liability for the PCN falls with the registered keeper, who now has to prove that the were or were not driving.

Given this change, supermarkets are now in a position to effectively chase up charge notices, and enforce car parking to ensure those who need parent and child spaces get them. Whether they do or not will depend on if they are prepared to invest in the necessary technology and manpower.

Unfortunately, until then, the misuse of parent and child spaces will remain largely a moral rather than legal issue.

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