What will the traffic commissioner want to discuss?
This will normally depend on the issues which have led to the public inquiry. For example if the issue is financial standing, the inquiry will focus on your bank accounts, overdrafts or guarantees to determine whether you have access to sufficient funds to manage your fleet. If the issue is maintenance the inquiry will focus on maintenance and testing records, systems, drivers' checks and auditing.
However, the public inquiry will not be limited in its scope and the Traffic Commissioner can investigate your operation in any way they wish. Therefore it is vital that you are fully and properly prepared before you attend.
Who can be called to the public inquiry?
It may not be just the operator who is called to the public inquiry. The Traffic Commissioner has the discretion and indeed duty to consider the repute of a transport manager. Where a licence is revoked in a more serious case, the Transport Commissioner has the power to disqualify a director from holding or obtaining a licence. Because of this, directors, transport managers and drivers are often called to a public inquiry and each will receive a separate ‘calling in letter’.
What happens on the day?
The hearing itself can often be much more informal than a hearing that would take place in a criminal court such as the magistrates’ court. It can be dealt with very quickly or can take all day or even longer in some rare cases.
Different Traffic Commissioners have a different approach to the hearing and the format can differ slightly depending on the sitting Traffic Commissioner however, if there is a DVSA officer present then they will be called to give evidence first. This can often be just by confirming the contents of the previously prepared and served witness statement. The DVSA officer can then be questioned by the Traffic Commissioner and even cross examined by the operator or any legal representative appearing on behalf of the operator. It is important to note that the DVSA are not acting as a prosecuting body in a public inquiry. By its nature an inquiry is a fact finding and fact assessing exercise. The DVSA is there as a party to the inquiry whose aim is to assist the Traffic Commissioner in his or her investigation of the case.
The inquiry then moves on to hearing the evidence of the operator. That can be done in the same way as the DVSA evidence if the operator has prepared a statement or it can be in a very interactive way with the Traffic Commissioner
Documentation, often a large amount, will likely be referred to during the hearing depending on what the issues in the cases are. The operator can be asked questions on any aspect of the operation and will need to be informed about all of the issues to satisfy the Traffic Commissioner.
What will be the outcome?
At public inquiries the Traffic Commissioner will consider whether to grant or refuse applications for operator’s licences and whether to take regulatory action against licences.
- Formal warning - This is the most lenient of all of the potential sanctions available to the Traffic Commissioner however, it should not be downplayed. Future breaches of any type are very likely to then result in much more serious action being taken. Formal warnings can often be accompanied by additional requirements or conditions being imposed on any or all of the driver, transport manager or operator.
- Curtailment -This involves the reduction in number of vehicles permitted for use under the licence. This can have little or massive commercial effect depending on the number of the vehicles in operation at the time of the action. If the operator needs to use the capacity of his authorised vehicle allowance for the proper running of the operation and that number is curtailed by the operator then that can have huge commercial effect on the business.
- Suspension -This is where the licence is suspended, usually for a specified period. Not only does this suspend the operation of any vehicles under the licence for the period of the suspension but it also means that any vehicles specified under the licence cannot be used by any under operator or pursuant to any other operator licence during that period.
- Revocation -This is the most serious of actions and will almost certainly result in the operator being put out of business.
Annual reports are published each year outlining how matters are dealt with before the Traffic Commissioner. A report published in July 2020 covering 2019-2020 (For year ended 31 March 2020) , there were 818 public inquiries held to consider regulatory action against goods vehicle operators. This figure may be higher as in some instances there was more than one action against the license holder: 282 licences were revoked and only 5% resulted in no further action to be taken. These figures are totals for England, Scotland and Wales.
A further 174 public inquiries considered action against bus and coach operators: 78 licences were revoked, 15 were suspended, only 3% faced no further action.
The annual reports contain a clear statement from the Traffic Commissioners:
“Our mission is to promote safe, fair, efficient and reliable passenger and goods transport through effective and efficient licensing and regulation of the commercial vehicle industry.”
It is important that a clear and thorough approach is taken when approaching a public inquiry to ensure that the Traffic Commissioners are guided in the best possible way to assist with making a fair and proportionate decision by ruling out the possibility of making a decision which is not based on the full facts and context of the concerns leading to the inquiry being called.
What should I do now?
The most important fact to bear in mind is that you will be judged on the state of affairs on the date of the public inquiry. It is vital that the valuable time between receiving your calling in letter and attending the public inquiry is used effectively.
Any issues or shortcomings in your operation need to be quickly identified and rectified. Representation from a specialist solicitor and transport consultant will help you identify what needs to be done in order to maximise your chances of a positive outcome.
If you have been called to attend a public inquiry our solicitors will be happy to assist. Call us on 01616 966 229.
*Traffic commissioners’ annual reports 2015 – 2016 – published November 2016