The public inquiry is a common area of misunderstanding. Many, upon being called up by the Traffic Commissioner, imagine a Judgement at Nuremberg scenario, with a bombastic lawyer pacing the floor and angry eyes glaring from the gallery. But the truth is far less cinematic.
Your O-Licence & the Traffic Commissioner
As we know, operator licences for HGVs and PSVs are issued by the Traffic Commissioner (TC) for the area in which the applicant's operating centre is located. It's your particular TC who has the final say in regard to your licence.
In the UK, there are eight Traffic areas and each of the Commissioners is appointed by the Secretary of State for Transport with responsibility for:
- HGV and PSV operator licensing;
- The registration of local bus services; and
- Granting vocational licences and taking action against drivers of HGVs and PSVs.
The Commissioners are independent in their licensing functions. When they consider it appropriate, a TC can hold a Public Inquiry. There are two main instances in which they'll consider such action:
- when objections arise to an operating centre; and
- when disciplinary action against a licence holder is required.
What is a PI?
A PI is a hearing at which allegations against an operator, or objections to an operating centre, are aired.
The purpose of the PI is to expose evidence of criminality, malpractice, and/or noncompliance by hearing the testimonies of complainants, DVSA and any other parties involved.
In reality, a PI resembles a hearing in a Magistrates' Court. One important difference, however - the TC sits alone, relying on their own counsel, without a clerk for advice or assistance.
Where are public inquiries held?
Usually, at the offices of the Traffic Commissioner. However, if it's more convenient for potential witnesses, other public buildings or even hotels closer to the operating centre may be used.
What happens at a PI?
While no two public inquiries follow an identical course, there is a basic structure to each hearing:
- Introduction by the Clerk as to the matter in question;
- Introduction by the Traffic Commissioner concerning their remit and how they intend the PI to proceed;
- Invitation by the TC to hear any representation concerning the proposed process or initial points of law;
- Evidence given for why the PI is being held;
- Witnesses or objectors called;
- Opportunity for the operator to question the witnesses/objectors;
- Operator provides their own evidence and calls their own witnesses, if any;
- Witnesses/objectors cross examine the operator and their witnesses;
- The TC may begin their questioning; and then
- A conclusion is reached and the hearing wound up.
Depending on the purpose of the PI, the TC will announce their decision and the reasons behind it.
If the issue is in respect of a licence application, the application may be refused or granted. If it's granted, it could be with restrictions; for example, the TC may reduce the number of vehicles originally requested.
Something to consider...
A formal warning may include a stipulation that the operator undertakes some form of training, or retraining. The most common would be the Operator Licence Awareness (OLAT) course. These courses provide classroom-based tuition on the general responsibilities of the operator in regard to their licence; at the end of the training they will be given a certificate, which can be used as evidence that the condition has been met.
The Commissioner can also issue a fine, and may order further financial penalties. If they perceive wrongdoing on the part of the operator, the TC 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); or a
- Formal warning.
If the TC finds against the operator, then the operator may appeal the decision. An appeal can be undertaken with or without the assistance of a solicitor. The appeal process begins when the operator downloads and completes the UT12 Form, which can be accessed here.
Some concluding advice...
While some PIs are relatively straightforward affairs, many more involve complex issues of law and road transport that require specialist, in-depth knowledge. It is always inadvisable to attempt to undertake a PI without the guidance of a solicitor or road transport consultant. The consultant will not only be able to help you prepare for the hearing, but will be able to attend the hearing alongside you. In the high-pressure environment of a public inquiry, their support can prove invaluable.
As for further reading, you can check out the information provided on the government website. As well as advice, the TC's office also publishes lists of recent public inquiries, applications and decisions, and so on.
For a more straightforward and immediate response to any questions you may have, I'm holding a webinar on the topic of public inquiries; what to do if you have one, and how to best avoid them!