Traffic Commissioner's Public Inquiry
Traffic commissioners are responsible for licensing and regulating operators of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), public service vehicles (PSVs) and local bus services. They can also take action against their drivers.
They can call a formal public inquiry in a court to obtain more evidence to help them decide if they should:
- Grant or refuse licences for HGV or PSV operators.
- Take action against a vehicle operator, bus service operator or driver of a bus, minibus or lorry.
This might be if someone has objected to a licence being granted or the traffic commissioner thinks an operator may have broken the terms of their licence.
A vehicle or bus service operator can also request a public inquiry, but the traffic commissioner does not have to hold one.
There are eight Traffic Commission areas and each of the Commissioners is appointed by the Secretary of State for Transport and has responsibility for:
- The licensing of the operators of Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) and of buses and coaches (Public Service Vehicles or PSVs).
- The registration of local bus services.
- Granting vocational licences and taking action against drivers of HGVs and PSVs.
It is sometimes the case that during an initial operator licence application a public inquiry can be called. Invariably, the reason(s) for this can be:
Objecting to a licence
Licence applications are made public. Objections can be made by certain public bodies and in some cases individuals.
Objections by public bodies
Bodies that can object to a licence application include:
- Local and planning authorities
- The police
- Some trade associations and trade unions
When a public body can object
A public body can object to a licence concerning the:
- Professional competence of the operator or its transport manager
- Operator’s finances
- Operator’s reputation or fitness to hold a licence
- Operator’s arrangements for vehicle maintenance and drivers’ hours
- Operating centre’s environmental standards and general conditions
Objections must be put in writing to the traffic commissioner within 21 days of a licence application being made public.
Being called to a public inquiry
An operator may have to attend a public inquiry if:
- Someone has objected to their application for a licence or change to a licence.
- The operator has not kept to the conditions of their licence ,e,g, more vehicles have been used than permitted by the licence.
- There are environmental concerns about a goods vehicle operating centre on the licence.
- The operator's conduct has come into question e.g. they have been caught using a mobile phone whilst driving.
Whatever the reasons behind calling a public inquiry, the operator will receive a letter with all the details, to which they will be required to acknowledge.
Notice to attend
There will be a minimum of:
- 28 days’ notice if the inquiry is about a transport manager.
- 21 days’ notice if the inquiry is about a new or existing goods operator licence.
- 14 days’ notice if the inquiry is about a new or existing passenger operator’s licence.
A request for the hearing date to be changed to another date cannot be made unless there is a good reason that can be backed up. For example, if due to be away on holiday, evidence may be required to to show it was pre-booked.
Public Inquiries are usually held at the offices of the Traffic Commissioner but may be held at other public buildings or even hotels closer to the Operating Centre if it is more convenient for potential witnesses.
What is a Public Inquiry?
A Public Inquiry (PI) is the method used by a Traffic Commissioner to hear either allegations against an operator who has not performed in accordance with undertakings given when the licence was granted, or where there has been a relevant conviction, or where an Operating Centre is objected to. This list is not meant to be exhaustive as a Traffic Commissioner may call a PI for a variety of reasons.
The purpose of the PI is to hear evidence from either complainants, DVSA or other interested parties, and the operator, in order that the Traffic Commissioner can come to a fair and reasoned view as to a course of action, such as granting or refusing a licence.
A PI is basically a formal hearing very much like that of a Magistrates Court although the Traffic Commissioner sits alone and without a clerk for advice. The hearings are recorded and usually take the form of:
- Introduction by the Clerk as to the matter to be considered
- Introduction by the Traffic Commissioner concerning his remit and how it is intended that the PI should proceed
- Invitation by the Traffic Commissioner to hear any representation concerning the proposed process or initial points of law
- Evidence of the reason for the PI is given
- Witnesses or objectors - if any - are called
- The operator has a chance to ask questions of the witnesses/objectors
- Once all witnesses/objectors have been heard the operator can then give his own evidence and call his own witnesses
- Witnesses/objectors can cross-examine the operator and his/her witnesses
- The traffic Commissioner may also ask questions
- Traffic Commissioner reaches a conclusion
The above is a very basic outline of what usually occurs, but it follows a general pattern. The Rules of Evidence are applied less formally than in other tribunals, but this should not be considered an indication that there are no rules - formal conduct is required.
Dependent on the purpose of the PI, the Traffic Commissioner will make his/her decision and give the reasons for doing so. The Traffic Commissioner should always have regard to Human Rights issues. If the issue is in respect of a licence application then the application may be refused or granted. If granted the Traffic Commissioner can do so with restrictions which may include a reduction in the number of vehicles originally requested.
The Traffic Commissioner can require the payment of a fine and can also make an order that results in a financial penalty. For wrongdoing the Traffic Commissioner may order:
- Revocation - the licence is taken away and the company can no longer trade
- Suspension - the licence is suspended and the company cannot trade during that period
- Curtailment - the number of vehicles on the licence is reduced
- Formal warning
Preparation for a Public Inquiry
When preparing for a Public Inquiry or even considering if there is any basis for a defence, it is advisable to discuss the matter, in the first instance, with a Transport Lawyer. To delay once the 'call up' papers have been received will create obstacles for the operator, the company, and possibly the transport manager, as he/she is also likely to be called to defend his/her repute.
Many Public Inquiries are straightforward but some may involve complex issues of law or technical matters. Sometimes it is necessary to cross-examine witnesses and members of the public and this needs to be done in a dispassionate and clinical manner to prevent the PI from becoming an argument, where important issues may become lost. It is best to get specialist advice from a solicitor or transport consultant who specialises in Public Inquiries and these should be engaged as soon as it is known that a PI may be taking place. Preparation is everything.
If the Traffic Commissioner finds against the operator or the operator feels that he/she has been dealt with harshly or in an unfair fashion, then there is a procedure for appeal to the Transport Tribunal. The procedure is complex and should normally only be undertaken with the guidance of a solicitor or experienced transport consultant.
For information pertaining to the appeal of a public inquiry decision made by a traffic commissioner, visit the link below for information and the relevant forms to be able to make an appeal.