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Public Inquiry

Called up to a Public Inquiry

Anyone who operators Large Goods (LGV) or Passenger Vehicles in the UK, with very few exceptions, requires an Operator’s Licence issued by the Traffic Commissioner.

One of the powers the Traffic Commissioner has in connection with an Operator’s Licence is to call the holder of, or applicant for, that Operator’s Licence to a Public Inquiry.

Purpose of a Public Inquiry?

An operator holding an Operator’s Licence has to satisfy a number of legal criteria. These include:-

  • Good Repute
  • Financial Standing
  • Professional Competence (unless restricted licence)
  • Suitable Operating Centre
  • Proper arrangements for Maintenance
  • Proper arrangements for Tachographs, Drivers Hours and Working Time.

If a Traffic Commissioner has a concern about any of these criteria not being met, he may call a Public Inquiry. This can happen at any point from when the operator applies for a licence, makes an application to vary it or just during the term of the Operator’s Licence when the operator has actually made no application.

Often the Traffic Commissioner will have received investigation reports from the DVSA and there may already have been some correspondence with the operator, long before the Inquiry is actually listed.

What’s the normal procedure?

The Inquiry will be notified to the operator by a long letter from the Traffic Commissioner. The letter will inform the operator that they are being called to a Public Inquiry and will set out the issues which the Traffic Commissioner wants to consider at the Hearing. This is known as a “Call-in-Letter”.

Shortly after the letter has been served and before the Hearing, the operator should receive a “Brief” in the form of a large paginated photocopied bundle; this is known as “the Brief”. The Brief should contain all the documents that the Traffic Commissioner will consider at the Hearing and is essential that the Brief is taken by the operator to the Hearing.

The Hearing will then take place and, depending on the complexity of the issues to be considered, can last anything from an hour up to a day. There can be cases that last for a much longer period of time however these are rare.

At the Hearing the Traffic Commissioner may hear evidence from a DVSA or third party witness. Any operator or Transport Manager who is called to the Inquiry can ask questions of those witnesses.

The Traffic Commissioner will then invite the operator to present their evidence to the Inquiry.

The Inquiry process is usually very interactive between the Traffic Commissioner and the various witnesses and parties and you can normally expect a healthy and direct dialogue on the issues. Typically, the Inquiries will be thorough with an in-depth analysis of both historic concerns and up to date documentation.

At the Hearing, an operator is typically asked to produce a large volume of up to date maintenance and tachograph records. These will almost certainly be analysed by the Traffic Commissioner and any DVSA witnesses that are present.

It is very important the operator fully understands the documents that he is producing and therefore should not be taken by surprise at any of the comments that those documents raise in the Hearing. Thorough preparation is essential.

The Decision

Having heard all of the evidence, the Traffic Commissioner will normally go on to make a decision within the Hearing. It is though not uncommon for a Traffic Commissioner to finish the Inquiry and indicate that they will issue a decision either in writing or orally on a later occasion. There can be a number of reasons for this ‘extra time’, however, generally, it is to allow the Traffic Commissioner thinking time in order to analyse what has been heard and to reach a balanced outcome.

You should receive any written decision in accordance with guidance within about 28-days of the Hearing.

Other Parties

As well as the operator being called to a Public Inquiry it is common for the Transport Manager and the Directors/partners of a business to receive similar calling in paperwork. The Traffic Commissioner’s powers include the power to take repute off a Transport Manager and where a licence is revoked, to disqualify a director/partner or operator from holding or obtaining a licence. These powers are commonly exercised in serious cases.

In addition, in LGV Operator’s Licensing, the Traffic Commissioner can hold a Public Inquiry to consider the environmental/road safety/suitability of a site proposed as an operating centre. In these cases any statutory objectors, for instance the Police or Local Authority, or any representors – people who occupy land in vicinity of the site – will be invited to attend. An operator should know in advance who these people are. These types of Hearings are known as “Environmental Public Inquiries”.

What to do if you find yourself in front of the Traffic Commissioner?

At a Public Inquiry, the Traffic Commissioners can take action over a very wide spectrum of powers. They can, for example, grant an application, increase a vehicle authorisation, take no action or refuse an application but leave the licence otherwise alone. On the other side, they can curtail (reduce authorised vehicle numbers), suspend a licence (prevent vehicles being operated under the licence for a set period of time), revoke a licence and where a licence is revoked, she can disqualify parties from holding or obtaining a licence.

The Hearings are thorough where the issues will be discussed in depth. There is a fairly complex legal backdrop to the way in which Traffic Commissioner’s operate and the issues they may be discussing. The following sources will commonly be referred to:-

  1. STC Directors and Guidance
  2. Primary and secondary legislation for Operator’s Licensing
  3. Primary and secondary legislation relating the construction & use and maintenance of vehicles
  4. Primary legislation relating to the EU/UK Drivers Hours and Working Time Regulations
  5. Multitude of other rules and regulations which apply to the UK transport industries. When you are called to a Public Inquiry, your compliance, as a whole, will normally be under the microscope and the Traffic Commissioner’s will regularly consider issues which go on the face of it, far beyond what you might understand to be the concern in the “calling in letter” and the “Brief”.

You are entitled, as of right, to present written and oral evidence and to cross examine witnesses that may be giving evidence which is adverse to the operators interest.

Operators will frequently have known many months before an Inquiry that they will have had an adverse tachograph or maintenance investigation or they are undertaking a major change in the business structure, including acquiring another company for instance.

The earlier that you seek specialised assistance with these issues, perhaps long before a calling in letter or brief is produced, the better your prospects of a satisfactory outcome if there is a Public Inquiry. Indeed, in many cases, an Inquiry can be avoided all together by better communication with the Office of the Traffic Commissioner (OTC) through a skilled specialist.

Backhouse Jones is the UK market leader in advice and representation before the Traffic Commissioners and are quoted by the Chambers Independent Guide as “the premier firm dealing with road transport regulatory work…with far and away the biggest market share of any firm in this field”. We would urge anyone concerned about a Hearing to contact us as soon as that concern is raised. It genuinely is never too early!

Public Inquiries can be stressful and time consuming events in the life of an operator’s business. However with competent, specialised help from us, the level of the stress and the focus of the time consuming effort can be managed.