cherished number plates
by Roderick Ramage, solicitor, www.law-office.co.uk
first published in New Law Journal on 28 February 2016
This article is not advice to any person and may not be taken as a definitive statement of the law in general or in any particular case. The author does not accept any responsibility for anything that any person does or does not do as a result of reading it.
TUPE, pensions and contracting-out
Whether you spend a million or so on “A1” for your best car and its converse, “1A”, for its twin in your motor house, or £250 plus an administration fee of £80 on a less exalted number from the DVLA or something in between from a private trader, what is it that you will get?
Lloyd v Svenby and another  EWHC 315 (QB) concerned a dispute between the owners of two cars, Lister Jaguars made in or about 1959, which, unbeknown to the authorities until 2002, had borne the same registration number as each other. Mr Lloyd asked the DVLA which car should retain the registration number. The DVLA withdraw the registration number from both vehicles, so Mr Lloyd brought proceedings for declaratory relief that his car had a better claim to the registration number than Mr Svenby’s. The court dismissed both the claim and counterclaim on the ground, amongst others, that there was no justiciable issue between the parties. The judge said at 70/71, 74 and 76:
But there are in my judgment insuperable obstacles to the grant of such relief. [72.] In the first place, there is no common law right to a particular (or any) registration mark. The system of registration marks is a creature of statute, and any right to a particular mark must be found in statute or statutory instrument. Apart from the rights that may be conferred pursuant to section 26 of the 1994 Act or under a scheme made under section 27, there is no statutory right to a particular registration mark. There is therefore in the present case no right which may be the subject of adjudication. … [74.] It is common ground that under the statutory scheme, it is the Secretary of State (by his agency the DVLA) who decides whether a particular car should have a particular registration number. … [78.] There are no recognised or established principles to apply to the determination of the issue raised by the application for the first declaration. This is precisely because a registration mark is not a right of property and no tortious cause of action is now alleged.
Goel v Pick  EWHC 833 (Ch), a bankruptcy case, came to a similar conclusion. A purported transfer of a car and its vehicle registration number (VRM) did not prevent the bankrupt from applying for a right of retention under the reg 4 of the Retention of Registration Marks Regulations 1993, SI 1993/987 (the Retention Regulations), as amended. The deputy registrar dismissed transferee’s claim that the right to the registration number was a chose in action and that the letter confirming the sale of the car and its VRM was either a legal or an equitable assignment of the VRM, and the Court dismissed his appeal. The Judge said at 20:
The problem about this analysis is to know what is meant by "the right to the VRM", or, to put the point in a slightly different way, what was the subject matter of the supposed assignment. A VRM is an item of property only in a very qualified sense. Essentially it is a mark or number assigned to motor vehicles by a governmental agency for regulatory reasons. It is only as an incident of the requirement that every road vehicle shall have a VRM assigned to it that certain marks or numbers have come to be regarded as attractive by reason of their novelty or distinctiveness and thus to have a value. A glance at press advertisements shows that some VRMs are traded, or at least offered for sale, at substantial prices. But if one speaks of the disposal or acquisition of a particular VRM one is inevitably referring to the process of retention and nomination prescribed by the regulations. What Mr. Beaumont referred to as "the right to the VRM" is, in my view, nothing more nor less than the ability to resort to the regulatory machinery in order to obtain the transfer of a VRM from one vehicle to another. I do not think this can be described as a chose in action. Even if it can, it is not capable of being "assigned", as distinct from being exercised in accordance with the regulations.
The Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 s23 requires the SoS to assign a registration mark to a vehicle that he registers. The SoS may assign a mark to a vehicle to which another mark has previously been assigned, assign to a vehicle a mark that has previously been assigned to another vehicle. The assignment is to the vehicle and not to the owner or the registered keeper or any other person. Section 26 enables the SoS to make regulations under which a person, in whose name a vehicle is registered, has a right have the mark assigned to the vehicle assigned to some other vehicle, which is registered in that person’s or some other person’s name. These are the Retention Regulations. Apart from this right individuals have no rights in relation to the transfer of a VRM.
The answer to my opening question is three parts.
· No one has any property in the registration number of one’s vehicle.
· What you buy, when you think that you are buying an existing VRM allocated to a registered vehicle, is the agreement of the person in whose name the vehicle is registered to undertake the necessary administrative steps to have the VRM allocated to a vehicle registered in your name or that of a person nominated by you.
· If, pursuant to s27 and the Sale of Registration Marks Regulations 1995, SI 1995/2880 as amended by SI 2015/193, you are acquiring from the DVLA a VRM that has never been assigned to a vehicle or has been but is no longer assigned to one, what you pay for is a right (evidenced by a certificate of entitlement) for it to be assigned to a vehicle either immediately or in a period of ten years, which may be extended.
copyright Roderick Ramage
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