German artist whose vehicle was unlawfully auctioned by Welsh police awarded £36,500 in damages

England and Wales High Court
England and Wales High Court

An English judge has awarded a German artist £36,500 in damages after her vehicle was unlawfully sold by Welsh police before she was able to recover it.

The Chief Constable of North Wales Police refused to allow Astrid Linse to recover her Mercedes-Benz Unimog truck in 2019, even though she later produced a valid certificate of motor insurance. The vehicle was then sold at auction in March 2020.

The case was heard in the High Court of Justice of England and Wales (Queen’s Bench Division) by Judge Milwyn Jarman QC.

Converted motorhome

The evidence of the claimant was that they were using the truck as a mobile home while staying in North Wales assisting in a chapel conversion project in Caenarfon. It was seized in October 2019 when the claimant and her husband stopped a police officer to ask him for directions and were unable to provide him with insurance documents when asked.

In December 2019 the claimant produced a valid motor insurance certificate for the vehicle within the meaning of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (Retention and Disposal of Seized Motor Vehicles) Regulations 2005, but police officers dealing with the matter decided that the certificate was invalid because of material non-disclosure. She raised judicial review proceedings against the claim in January 2020 challenging the lawfulness of this decision. 

The vehicle was sold at auction in March 2020 for £6,260, despite the police being aware of the judicial review proceedings. Judge Jarman determined on 29 May 2020 that the decision not to allow the claimant to recover her vehicle was unlawful. Accordingly, a hearing was fixed to assess the damages due to the claimant. 

Evidence was given that the Mercedes Unimog was a model originally produced for the German military in the 1980s that had acquired “an enthusiasts’ following” for conversion into mobile homes. The prices the claimant relied on were based on the asking prices for such conversion, which ran between £89,000 and £100,000. 

The claimant, who represented herself with assistance from another party, submitted that she had paid €40,000 for the vehicle in 2010, and since then undertaken a great deal of work to the detachable cabin attached to the back of the truck. She submitted that the vehicle had increased in value since then. 

It was also contended that the claimant had lost income as a result of having her vehicle confiscated, preventing her from returning to mainland Europe to sell artwork to existing clients, and that she and her husband had suffered emotional upset as a result of being homeless and unable to move, live, and work freely. 

Beyond mistake of law 

In his judgment, Judge Jarman began by determining the value of the vehicle, saying: “I do not find the evidence of the asking price of converted Unimogs in perfect or very good condition to be of great assistance as to the market value of the vehicle at the time of conversation.” 

He continued: “On the other hand, the sale price of it after an online auction is not of great assistance either, conducted as it was without documentation relating to the vehicle, or without any history save perhaps that it was a sale after being compounded on behalf of the police.” 

He concluded on this part of the valuation: “It may well be, as Mrs Linse said, that such a unique vehicle is likely to increase rather than decrease in value over time. Against that, however, must be taken into account the extensive travel which the vehicle had clocked up travelling in different European countries over a period of some nine years, even if it had been well maintained. Pulling all those pieces of evidence together, in my judgment the most likely figure to reflect the market value of the vehicle in 2019 is £25,000.” 

Addressing any lost income, he said: “[Mrs Linse] readily accepted during her oral evidence that she still has the artwork which she was hoping to sell, and that she is still hoping to sell it when she is able to do so. She also readily accepted that since the seizure of the vehicle she has produced several new pieces of artwork, which she hopes in due course to sell. In my judgment therefore, the income has not been lost but the receipt of it has been delayed.” 

Judge Jarman finally turned to aggravated or exemplary damages, saying: “The conduct of the police goes beyond a mistake of law. [The 2005 Regulations] are clear as to the effect of a certificate of insurance which is liable to be avoided for material non-disclosure. A sergeant in the North Wales Road Policing Unit, PS Collins, emailed to say she had confirmed that the insurance was valid, and that if Mrs Linse took that insurance document to a police station, the document would be stamped, and she could go and collect the vehicle.” 

He concluded: “In my judgment the appropriate award to reflect the punitive element of damages for the arbitrary action identified above is £6,000. I have taken into account the impact of this action upon Mr Linse and her husband in arriving at that figure and in my judgment it is not appropriate to award a separate head of aggravated damages.” 

For these reasons, the claimant was awarded a total sum of £36,500 in damages. This figure also included the value of several lost items that Judge Jarman accepted had been in the vehicle but not itemised by the police. 

© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2021

Other judgments by Judge Jarman