A Traffic Commissioner Public Inquiry is a serious and potentially business-ending event that must be dealt with properly.
Typically, in order to get to the stage where a Public Inquiry is required, something has to have gone seriously wrong in your company’s compliance procedures.
Most commonly, operators are called to Public Inquiry under section 26 of the Goods Vehicles (Licensing of Operators) Act 1995. This permits action to be taken against a licence for a failure to meet the requirements of holding a licence. This can include:
Additionally, a Public Inquiry can be called by the Traffic Commissioner to consider new applications for operator licences where there may be concerns over the applicant’s fitness to hold a licence.
The Traffic Commissioner may also call applicants to Public Inquiry if there are possible environmental issues – for example, noise disruption to neighbours caused by vehicles entering or exiting an operating centre.
Generally, a Public Inquiry will be held at the Traffic Commissioner’s Office in Edinburgh, not too far from Waverley Station. Since taking office, Scotland’s Traffic Commissioner, Claire Gilmore has returned some hearings to Glasgow Burgh Court for operators based in the west – Mondays are typically reserved for these dates. From time to time, Inquiries may also be held in Aberdeen or Inverness.
A Public Inquiry will be held in a hearing room, similar to a Magistrate’s court. The Traffic Commissioner and their clerk will be present – and as the name may give away, these hearings are open to the public to attend. If you have a forthcoming Public Inquiry, it would be beneficial to attend one to get an idea of the format and what to expect. You can check all upcoming Public Inquiries in the weekly release of the Applications & Decisions.
Operators will be expected to discuss their business and transport needs in detail to demonstrate how they are presently achieving compliance.
The operator will be invited to present their case first. This is where legal representation can be extremely beneficial in ensuring you get your message across. GRT can connect you with a highly experienced transport solicitor who will help plan your response and support you on the day. Traffic Commissioner Public Inquiries are nuanced legal hearings and it pays to recruit a specialist solicitor who works on these cases every week.
If you have been subject to a roadside stop or subsequent investigation, the DVSA examiner may be present to give evidence and explain their report. The Traffic Commissioner will then ask questions and cross-examine all parties.
There will be a short adjournment and normally, your case will be decided on the day. For more complicated hearings involving many issues or multiple operators, the Public Inquiry may extend over a few days and the Traffic Commissioner may wish to communicate their decision in writing.
The Traffic Commissioner has a variety of options available when deciding how to dispose of cases:
In 2018-19, there were 70 Public Inquiries before the Traffic Commissioner in Scotland.
Of those 70 cases, only 5 operators left without any action being taken.
This is a similar pattern across the UK in general with approximately only 7% of operators called to Public Inquiry receiving no adverse sanctions. This shows the importance of getting professional assistance at the earliest possible stage.
Operators often ask whether the Traffic Commissioner can impose fines on operators at Public Inquiry. This is not possible explicitly – however the above measures impose an indirect financial penalty on operators by restricting their ability to earn or forcing them to use third party transport.
The best course of action in our experience is to carry out a full and exhaustive investigation of why the non-compliance event happened. To do this, you may consider having an operator licence compliance audit carried out by GRT. We also work alongside a specialist engineering consultant who will be able to assess your vehicle maintenance and if performed in-house, the competence of your staff.
This audit would provide full transparency into your operation and would outline the steps required to achieve compliance.
As referenced above, a specialist transport solicitor will also help to guide you through the Public Inquiry and prepare the best possible case.
The most important thing is to demonstrate on the day of your Public Inquiry is your improvement since your non-compliance event. The Traffic Commissioner must be satisfied that they can trust you to operate in their jurisdiction.