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Fantastic story out today (Mon, Jan 19) about a parent being invoiced for a kids’ party no-show. You can read the Guardian’s take here, and the BBC here.

The obvious reaction is to dismiss the invoice sender as a complete nutcase, and the no-show parents as arses for going to the press.

But pick it apart for a moment, and there’s a fundamental misunderstanding.

The boy’s mother said:

“But to be invoiced like this is so over the top – I’ve never heard of anything like it. It’s a terrible way of handling it – it’s very condescending.”

And the father, Derek Nash, said he was refusing to pay because the mother, Julie Lawrence, “didn’t treat me like a human being”.

That’s right – she treated you like a business. It’s not condescending, it’s transactional. In fact, it’s the customer-or-business confusion that is the problem.

Lawrence has sent out an invoice that looks very businessey. But who is the business here? Lawrence was prepared to pay £15.95 for Alex Nash’s time at her son’s birthday party. In effect, she’s paying for other parents to offer up their kids as friends. We might not see it like that, when in a normal situation the kids are friends anyway and the parents are happy to pay for the party so everyone has a nice time. But in this case, Lawrence has made it very clear that she paid for Nash to be there, and he wasn’t. So she wants her money back. It’s confusing, because customers don’t usually write invoices, but in this case, she has.

So Lawrence is acting like an aggrieved customer. The problem is, she paid the Plymouth Ski Slope and Snowboard Centre, not the Nash family. It’s a not a direct payment, and the Nash family might well be feeling confused. Lawrence thinks it’s a transaction. The Nashes think it was a gift.

Being charged for a gift you don’t use is not exactly normal. If I fail to use a gift card in the time specified, or don’t take up some free offer, that’s my look out. I’m not then forced to pay anything the other way.

There are lots of legal arguments that might be used here – was there a contract, if so is it binding (I doubt it)? There are also lots of questions of behaviour – should the school have allowed this invoice to go via the book bag; should the Nash parents have been a bit more respectful of a party invite? But by making an invoice, Lawrence has put the issue into new territory.

As soon as she made out that invoice – which must have taken some time, as it looks very professional – she reduced the whole party to the status of a transaction. I pay, you come and be nice.

That’s not what parties are about. Rude as a no-show is, it’s not about the money. It is simply a gift that has been discarded.