A Guide to the Traffic Commissioner Public Inquiry Process

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A Guide to the Traffic Commissioner Public Inquiry Process

Facing a public inquiry by the local Traffic Commissioner can be a pivotal moment for transport managers, bus service operators and operators of heavy goods vehicles. This formal public inquiry serves as a critical examination by the Traffic Commissioner into the operations and conduct of vehicle operators holding or applying for an operator's licence. It is designed to help them to maintain integrity, fair competition and safety standards within the transport sector.

The Traffic Commissioner plays a central role in regulating operators and ensuring they meet the necessary legal and professional standards for operating public service vehicles and goods vehicles. Public inquiries are conducted to address concerns over legal compliance, safety practices and the overall fitness of an operator to hold a licence.

As such, understanding the intricacies of the Traffic Commissioner public inquiry process is essential for operators to maintain their licences and continue their operations without interruption. In this guide, we will explore the ins and outs of this process, ensuring that any business called to attend an inquiry can fulfil its responsibilities and emerge with the best possible outcome.

Who are Traffic Commissioners and what is their jurisdiction?

Traffic Commissioners are integral figures in the UK's transport sector. They are appointed to ensure the safe and lawful operation of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and public service vehicles (PSVs), which covers everything from haulage companies to local bus and coach services. Holding a statutory position, they issue, amend and revoke operator licences and ensure that only those meeting the necessary safety, financial and professional standards can operate. Their remit includes regulating transport managers and vehicle operators, maintaining compliance with licence conditions and upholding public safety and environmental standards.

These officials also conduct public inquiries and driver conduct hearings to address non-compliance and safety concerns, which can lead to actions ranging from formal warnings to licence revocation. With distinct jurisdictions across Great Britain, Traffic Commissioners address localised transport issues, fostering a safer, more reliable public and goods transport system. Their role extends beyond licensing to adjudicating disputes and developing industry standards and they work in tandem with organisations like the DVSA to enforce compliance and promote best practices in the transport industry.

What are the potential reasons for a public inquiry?

You may need to attend a Traffic Commissioner public inquiry due to various factors, each of which is significant to the continuance and integrity of an operator’s licence. Understanding these reasons is vital for transport managers, PSV operators and HGV operators to ensure compliance.

  • Objections and representations to licence applications or changes: if someone objects to your application for a new licence or any changes to an existing licence, this can trigger a public inquiry. Objections can arise from local and planning authorities, the police, trade associations and unions. Members of the public, who live in the vicinity of your proposed operating centre, can make representations against the use of that site if they feel it negatively impacts on the enjoyment of their land or causes a road safety concern.
  • Non-compliance with licence conditions: failing to adhere to the specific conditions of your licence, such as operating more vehicles than permitted, can lead to a public inquiry. The Traffic Commissioner needs to ascertain the extent of non-compliance and decide on the appropriate action.
  • Environmental concerns: specific environmental issues associated with goods vehicle operating centres, such as noise, pollution or improper waste management, can trigger an inquiry. Operators must address any environmental concerns to prevent regulatory action.
  • Questionable conduct: conduct that raises questions about an operator’s fitness to hold a licence, such as if they are convicted of health and safety offences, can lead to a public inquiry. This extends to any behaviour that undermines public safety or confidence in the transport industry.

Specific reasons why objections might be raised against your licence might include:

  • Concerns about the professional competence of the operator or its transport manager
  • Issues with the operator’s finances
  • Questions about the operator’s repute or fitness to hold a licence
  • Problems with the operator’s arrangements for vehicle maintenance and drivers’ hours
  • Failures in the operating centre’s environmental standards and general conditions

If you are being summoned to attend a public inquiry by the Traffic Commissioner, you will be notified via a letter accompanied by a Traffic Commissioner brief, which contains all the evidence that the Traffic Commissioner wishes to consider at the inquiry hearing.

What to do before the inquiry

Preparing properly for a Traffic Commissioner public inquiry will help you to present a well-organised and convincing case. Adequate preparation not only demonstrates your commitment to compliance, but also increases the likelihood of a favourable outcome. Here are essential steps to take before the inquiry:

  • Review the brief: upon receiving a notice of public inquiry, carefully review the evidence, including the reasons for the inquiry, the date, and the location. Understanding the specifics will guide your preparation and help you address the concerns raised by the Traffic Commissioner.
  • Respond on time: confirm your attendance at the inquiry or if you are unavailable, request an adjournment of the proceedings. 
  • Gather your documentation: compile all relevant documentation to support your case. This may include maintenance records, driver logs, financial statements and evidence of compliance with environmental regulations. Ensure that your documents are well-organised and up to date, as they will form the basis of your defence; these will also need to be sent to the relevant Office of the Traffic Commissioner when requested (usually 14 days in advance of the hearing) and in a timely manner.
  • Obtain legal representation: hiring a transport lawyer as quickly as possible, who specialises in Traffic Commissioner public inquiries can make a significant difference to your case. Legal representatives with dedicated transport experience can offer specialist advice, help prepare your case, and represent you during the inquiry. Their expertise can be invaluable, especially in complex cases and also to allow the Traffic Commissioner to understand how you have made changes to your operation to ensure compliance and road safety.
  • Prepare your case: develop a clear and concise argument that addresses the issues raised by the Traffic Commissioner. Be ready to explain any shortcomings and provide tangible evidence of improvements or corrective actions taken. Preparation should also include anticipating questions and preparing responses.
  • Staff briefing: if applicable, brief your staff, especially those who will attend the inquiry with you. This may include your transport manager or company directors. Ensure they understand the issues at hand and their roles during the inquiry.
  • Review the regulatory requirements: refresh your knowledge of the relevant regulations and standards, such as drivers' hours regulations and vehicle safety standards. Demonstrating a thorough understanding of these can positively influence the outcome. This may include attending relevant training courses that allow you to demonstrate to the Traffic Commissioner your improvement in knowledge and commitment to ensuring that any issues will be addressed comprehensively. 
  • Understand contingency plans: if the Traffic Commissioner takes regulatory action against your operator licence or transport manager, you will need to consider contingency plans. Do you need to notify customers, insurers or other stakeholders of the proceedings? Is it sensible to consider sub-contracting arrangements? Do you need to consider media management for any negative press that might result from such proceedings?

By preparing thoroughly for the Traffic Commissioner public inquiry, you demonstrate your commitment to operating within the legal framework and maintaining high standards of safety and compliance. This proactive approach can significantly impact the inquiry's outcome and your ability to continue your operations.

What to do during the inquiry

Attending a Traffic Commissioner public inquiry can be a daunting experience, but understanding what to expect and how to conduct yourself can significantly aid your case. Here's what you should know about the proceedings and how to navigate them effectively:

  • Arrival and presentation: arrive at the venue well before the scheduled time to allow for any last-minute preparations. Dress professionally and ensure that all of your documents are organised and easily accessible.
  • Presenting the basic details: the inquiry typically starts with the Traffic Commissioner outlining the reasons for the hearing and the issues to be addressed. They will listen to the application outline and ask questions about it, decide whether any oppositions should be heard and hear from any objectors or DVSA examiners outlining their cases.
  • Presenting the case in detail: at this stage, attendees will be able to present their cases in detail. This will be the opportunity for you or your legal representative to fully detail your case, including any evidence and documentation that supports your position. This might include maintenance records, training certificates, financial statements or environmental assessments. If you have witnesses, they may be called to give evidence and be cross-examined.
  • Questioning: be prepared to answer questions from the Traffic Commissioner and possibly other legal representatives present. Questions may cover a wide range of topics, including your operating practices, financial matters, compliance with regulations, and any specific incidents or issues that have led to the inquiry. The Commissioner may ask questions to clarify points or gather further information. They may also probe areas of concern or interest that emerge during the inquiry and ask about how any conditions added to your licence may affect your business. Listen carefully to the questions, take your time responding, and stay focused on providing clear and relevant information. 
  • Summation and final statements: at the end of the inquiry, you or your legal representative will have the opportunity to summarise your case and make final statements. This is your chance to underline your key points and demonstrate your commitment to compliance and safety.

Throughout this process, it is vital to remain professional, respectful and composed, and to always tell the truth. Evidence is not given under oath, but if you are found to be being deliberately deceptive, you could lose your licence or face criminal charges, as trust is paramount to the Traffic Commissioners.

What are the potential outcomes of a public inquiry?

Depending on the complexity of the case and the evidence presented, the Traffic Commissioner may make their decision on the day of the inquiry, or they may take more time to consider the evidence before providing a written decision later on, usually within 28 days.

The potential outcomes include:

  • No action: if the Traffic Commissioner is satisfied with the evidence and explanations presented during the inquiry, they may decide that no further action is necessary. This outcome is ideal, as it means you can continue operations without any changes or penalties.
  • Warning: the commissioner may issue a formal warning if they have concerns but believe that you are capable of addressing them without significant intervention. This warning is a clear indication that improvements are needed and your efforts to address any issues will be monitored.
  • Licence undertakings: the commissioner might ask for additional undertakings to be recorded on the licence. These could relate to increased reporting, specific operational changes, or mandates for additional training. These new conditions must be heeded to avoid further regulatory action. Therefore, prior to accepting an undertaking you must be comfortable that you can meet the undertaking wording in full by the deadline if given. Once an undertaking is recorded on the licence, you will need to continue to comply with it, until it is removed by the Traffic Commissioner.
  • Curtailment: the Traffic Commissioner may decide to curtail your licence, limiting the number of vehicles you can operate. This decision is often made to reduce risk while the operator addresses identified issues.
  • Suspension: in more serious cases, the commissioner can suspend your licence for a set period. During suspension, you are not permitted to operate any vehicles under the licence. This outcome is typically reserved for cases where there are significant safety or compliance issues.
  • Revocation: the most severe outcome is the revocation of your licence. This decision is made when the commissioner believes there is no feasible way for you to operate safely and legally. Revocation means you must cease all operations authorised by the licence. If your operator licence is revoked, the Traffic Commissioner must consider whether you, the directors or the business will be disqualified from holding an operator licence in the future.
  • Transport manager disqualification: if the Traffic Commissioner feels that the transport manager has failed to exercise effective and continuous management of the transport operations, it could lead to a loss of repute and therefore disqualification from being a transport manager for at least a one-year period.
  • Refusal of application: if the Traffic Commissioner feels that you have not met the mandatory criteria for holding an operator licence, the commissioner may refuse your application for a new operator licence. The commissioner also has the power to refuse a variation of your operator licence if the commissioner feels that your operating centre is not suitable, or your systems are not sufficient for increased vehicle numbers.

Understanding the potential outcomes allows you to prepare for the post-inquiry phase, whether that involves making operational changes, appealing the decision, or taking steps to ensure future compliance. It is important to take any decision seriously and to act promptly to address the Traffic Commissioner's concerns.

Can I appeal the decision?

If you disagree with the outcome of the Traffic Commissioner public inquiry, you have the right to appeal the decision to the Administrative Appeal Chamber (Transport) of the Upper Tribunal. Full details of how to appeal will be provided in the decision letter.

Appeals must be lodged with the Upper Tribunal within one month of the Traffic Commissioner’s decision. In order to do so, you will need to fill in form UT12, which can be found on the government website.

It may be the case that certain rulings from the inquiry, usually relating to suspension or revocation of an operator’s licence, can be delayed so they do not take effect until an appeal is lodged and dealt with by the Upper Tribunal. However, this will be at the discretion of the Traffic Commissioner.

Find out more

Navigating the public inquiry process can be a challenging experience. Whether for a HGV or PSV operators, these inquiries can be demanding and stressful, with significant professional consequences. As such, understanding the process, preparing effectively, and knowing your rights are essential steps in maintaining your operational integrity and your licence.

Remember, the Traffic Commissioner's role is to oversee safety, compliance and fairness within the transport sector. If the Traffic Commissioner thinks there are grounds to refuse licences or take action against a vehicle operator, it is typically with the public's and industry's best interests in mind. However, this does not mean operators are without recourse or the ability to rectify situations.

If you are facing a public inquiry or are concerned about potential issues that could lead to one, seeking specialist advice as soon as possible could be instrumental. Specialist transport solicitors can provide the guidance and support needed to navigate the inquiry process, develop a robust case and implement necessary changes to ensure compliance and operational efficiency.

Get in touch with JMW's team of experienced transport solicitors to learn more about how we can help with traffic commissioner public inquiries. Call 0345 872 6666 or complete our online enquiry form to request a call back.

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