An incredible legal gaffe could result in millions of motorists launching appeals against parking penalties handed out over the past 30 years.
Enforcement powers relied on by police and local authorities were accidentally deleted from the statute book, the Mail can reveal today.
Powers to charge motorists for removing and impounding vehicles were introduced in 1984 but were 'inadvertently removed due to a drafting error' in 1991 – and no one noticed until now.
Those who paid the penalties may be able to take legal action.
Enforcement powers relied on by police and local authorities were accidentally deleted from the statute book, the Mail can reveal today (pictured: car being hoisted onto lorry for removal)
The error was only admitted by the Government as it published a new Bill to restore legal clauses accidentally erased by two earlier Acts.
Cases will include cars towed away after a parking fine, as well as broken-down and abandoned vehicles.
Experts said motorists whose vehicles were towed away after 1991 could now bring an appeal because any charges imposed on them were unlawful.
Howard Cox, of the motoring pressure group Fair Fuel UK, said: 'Drivers who in the last 30 years have been charged illegally should demand their vehicle confiscation costs be repaid in full.
'They should be checking they have the historic paperwork to mount a legal challenge. This is not a question of their offences being right or wrong – it is down to governmental incompetence that is off the scale.
'The authorities and those responsible must pay for this idiocy.'
Storage and release fees for impounded vehicles typically run to hundreds of pounds. It is impossible to say exactly how many individual motorists have been affected by the mistake since 1991 because there are no central figures on vehicles towed away.
But Manchester City Council has previously published data showing 985 vehicles were issued with a ticket, removed and impounded in its area alone in 2017.
Experts said motorists whose vehicles were towed away after 1991 could now bring an appeal because any charges imposed on them were unlawful (file photo of a parking enforcement officer in Hackney, east London)
And just one London borough, Hackney, towed away 14,673 vehicles from 2011 to 2015.
Extrapolated to the rest of the country, it is likely to mean several million vehicles have been towed and impounded over three decades.
The laws that were accidentally deleted set out how police, town halls and other bodies such as highways agencies could charge up to £150 to tow away a vehicle. Motorists can also be charged up to £20 a day for storage of a car and up to £75 to dispose of it. Higher fees apply to larger or damaged vehicles.
It means each driver who can prove their vehicle was unlawfully removed is likely to have been charged hundreds of pounds – and may now be able to claim those fees back.
Police forces, local authorities and other highways agencies could face bills running to millions, particularly if they are forced to compensate drivers for legal costs.
Have you had a car towed away, and been charged to get it back?
It is likely that a legal challenge will have to be brought as a test case before the full impact becomes clear.
The developing scandal echoes the misselling of payment protection insurance (PPI) by the financial sector that began to emerge in 2006.
It led to a massive industry of claims management firms pursuing compensation in return for a slice of the profits.
The error on statutory charges for impounded vehicles only emerged in ancillary documents published alongside the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill last month.
The Explanatory Notes to the Bill say: 'The police's power to charge for the removal, storage and disposal of vehicles within the meaning of 'civil enforcement areas for parking contraventions' seems to have been inadvertently removed due to a drafting error.
'At the same time, the powers of local authorities, the Secretary of State and strategic highways companies to charge for removal, storage and disposal of vehicles were also inadvertently removed.'
Jeanette Miller, of the Association of Motor Offence Lawyers, said it was 'a major error in the legislation that has resulted in goodness knows how many millions being charged to motorists without any lawful basis'.
The error on statutory charges for impounded vehicles only emerged in ancillary documents published alongside the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill last month (file photo)
She added: 'Where this leaves motorists in terms of seeking refunds is difficult to say.
'There is a limitation period of six years in pursuing a civil claim but this can start from the date of the breach or, crucially, date of knowledge.'
The Home Office said 'it has been right for the police to continue to charge for vehicle recovery', adding: 'This has avoided costs being borne by the taxpayer and has allowed police to continue to remove abandoned vehicles to keep roads safe.'
A spokesman said there were 'no plans' for a review of how the powers had been used over the past 30 years.
It is understood that local government bodies are urgently seeking clarification about the legal error.
Official papers published alongside the new Bill say that 'to return to a statutory footing the legal basis to charge vehicle recovery, storage and disposal fees' it will amend the 1984 Road Traffic Regulation Act.
The power will not be restored until the Bill becomes law, expected to be later this year.