What is a public inquiry?
A public inquiry is a formal hearing held by the Traffic Commissioner for one of three reasons;
- To determine licence applications
- To carry out reviews of operating centres (goods operator licences only)
- To consider regulatory matters
When a Traffic Commissioner receives valid opposition to an application, the Commissioner may decide it appropriate to hold a public inquiry giving the interested parties the opportunity to present their case.
The Commissioner must hold a public inquiry if consideration is being given to taking regulatory action against an existing licence and the operator requests a hearing. Additionally a public inquiry must be called where the Commissioner is considering taking regulatory action against a transport manager’s good repute and/or professional competence.
Who can make a complaint or object to the Traffic Commissioner?
Objections can be made by statutory objects including, local authorities, planning authorities, the police and certain trade associations and trade unions. These objections can relate to repute or fitness to hold a licence, financial standing, concerns about the arrangements for vehicle maintenance and drivers hours compliance, professional competence of the operator and on environmental and general suitability of an operating centre.
Owners and occupiers of land or buildings near an operating centre may also make their views known to the traffic commissioner as a representation based on environmental grounds only.
Unlike objections made in response to applications, complaints can be made at anytime by anyone and can be made on either environmental or road safety grounds. The Commissioner can only take immediate action if they believe that the operator is acting outside the terms of their licence, otherwise the Commissioner can only act at the Review Date.
Again objections can be made by statutory objectors such as the Police and local authorities. These objections can be made in relation to grounds of repute or fitness to hold a licence, financial standing, concerns about the operators arrangements for vehicle maintenance and drivers hours compliance and professional competence of the operator
How will I be notified of the Public Inquiry?
Notification will be received by way of a letter explaining why the inquiry is being held and give details of the legislation under which the inquiry has been called together with the evidence that the Commissioner will consider. There are various timescales for notice to be provided which are as follows;
- 21 days in relation to existing goods operator licence or application
- 14 days in relation to existing passenger operator’s licence or application
- 28 days in relation to a public inquiry relating to transport manager
Who should attend the inquiry?
If the operator/applicant is a sole trader or partnership, the owner or partners should attend. If the operator is a limited company, then at least one director should attend. Permission can however be sought from the traffic commissioner for a senior representative of the company to attend as long as written authorisation from the board of directors is provided.
A failure to attend could result in the Commissioner determining the inquiry in absence.
There is no provision to apply for costs or expenses of attendance at a public inquiry and the traffic commissioner has no power to make an award for costs.
All those that appear at the inquiry can be represented by either Counsel or a Solicitor. Legal Aid is not available for a public inquiry and no duty solicitor will be available at the inquiry itself therefore representation must be arranged prior to attending the inquiry should you wish to be represented. It is unlikely that the Commissioner will adjourn the hearing if you attend unrepresented and wish to have representation.
What happens if you cannot attend?
If an operator/applicant or transport manager is unable to attend the inquiry, an adjournment should be requested. An adjournment will not normally be granted unless there is a good reason for doing so. You will therefore need to be prepared to give a full explanation as to why you are unable to attend and provide evidence of the circumstances e.g. a pre-booked holiday. A tribunal is not bound to accept a medical certificate and may use its discretion to disregard a certificate if the ailment does not appear to impact upon the persons ability to attend the hearing, does not state that they are unfit to attend a hearing and in certain cases gives no indication of the individual recovering within a realistic timescale.
The inquiry is a formal proceeding and the persons attending are expected to show respect to others and for the proceedings. The Traffic Commissioner should be referred to as Sir or Madam (depending on their gender) or simply Commissioner.
Whilst evidence is not given under oath, truthful answers are expected and a failure to provide these could lead to the Commissioner considering a persons fitness and repute to hold a licence or to act as the transport manager. The giving of false evidence may also result in the matter being referred to the Police for consideration of bringing criminal charges.
The inquiry will be open to members of the public however a request to hear certain sensitive evidence in private can be made.
Everyone entitled to give evidence will be given the opportunity to speak and ask questions. The Traffic Commissioner will likely also put questions to all parties. It will be for the Traffic Commissioner to decide what is relevant.
The proceedings will be recorded in the event that a transcript of the hearing is required. Obviously this can result in personal information being placed in the public domain unless procedures are followed to ensure this information remains private.
The Traffic Commissioner needs to be satisfied that the case has been proved on the ‘Balance of probability’ in other words “that is more likely than not” that the particular thing in question happened.
In most cases, the parties will be informed of the outcome of the inquiry on the day and it will be confirmed in writing after a few days. There are however instances where the Commissioner may wish to have additional time to consider the decision further. If this is the case the written decision will be sent to the interested parties as soon as possible and usually within 28 days.
Applicants, operators and statutory objectors have an automatic right of appeal to the Administrative Appeal Chamber (Transport) of the Upper Tribunal. Details of how to appeal will be set out in the written decision letter. A traffic Commissioner can only review his/her decision to grant an application if he/she is satisfied that there has been a procedural irregularity. Such a request to review must be made as soon as possible and in any event within two months of the date of the original decision.
For more information on the above contact Robert Readfern.