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Traffic Commissioner Preliminary Hearings — what is the risk to your business?

Learn about preliminary hearings with the Traffic Commissioner including the key differences between preliminary hearings and public inquiries.

What is a preliminary hearing?

Preliminary hearings are a type of regulatory hearing in front of the Traffic Commissioner. They are convened when the Traffic Commissioner has concerns over how your business has been operating its vehicles, but when those concerns are, for the moment, confined to a relatively narrow area.

A common misconception is that a Traffic Commissioner’s preliminary hearing is a fairly low-level matter. Whilst most directors and transport managers will readily appreciate the seriousness of a Traffic Commissioner’s public inquiry hearing, there can be a feeling that a preliminary hearing is more akin to a short administrative meeting with the regulator, at which any minor areas of concern can be easily ironed out.

The difference between preliminary hearings and public inquiries

Unfortunately, this would be very wrong. To better understand why, it can be helpful to compare Traffic Commissioner preliminary hearings with Traffic Commissioner public inquiries.

  Preliminary hearings Public inquiries
Will the Traffic Commissioner preside over the hearing? Yes Yes
Will the Traffic Commissioner require the attendance of a board-level company director? Yes Yes
Is there usually a requirement for you to disclose your compliance records for these to be inspected by the regulator? Yes Yes
Will the hearing be recorded? Yes Yes
Will proceedings take place in a public inquiry room? Yes Yes
Will directors and transport managers be cross examined by the Traffic Commissioner? Yes Yes
Is legal representation the norm? Yes Yes
Can the Traffic Commissioner impose additional licence conditions on your business? Yes Yes
Can the Traffic Commissioner require a company director to give legal undertakings on behalf of the business? Yes Yes
Can the Traffic Commissioner issue your business with a formal warning? Yes Yes
Can you be required to disclose your company accounts and financial standing evidence? Yes Yes
Are written submissions, witness statements and supporting evidence required? Yes Yes
Can the Traffic Commissioner revoke or suspend your operator’s licence, or reduce the number of vehicles you are allowed to operate? No — but see below Yes

As can be seen from the table, in almost all material respects, a Traffic Commissioner’s preliminary hearing is exactly the same as a Traffic Commissioner’s public inquiry and should be treated as such. The only main difference is that, at a preliminary hearing stage, the Traffic Commissioner cannot revoke, suspend or curtail your company’s licence or disqualify directors. This is cold comfort however, as the Commissioner can instead decide to escalate the matter to a full public inquiry hearing if they remain dissatisfied.

Why have I been called to a preliminary hearing?

Unsurprisingly, there are many reasons why a company, its directors and its transport managers can be called to a preliminary hearing. These include but are not limited to:

  • a recent bridge strike involving a company vehicle
  • an unsatisfactory DVSA maintenance investigation or desk based assessment
  • a prohibition notice (PG9) issued to a company vehicle during a roadside stop or fleet inspection
  • concerns over your transport managers, and whether they are exercising continuous and effective control over the fleet and drivers
  • a failure to declare convictions, material changes, or matters which could affect the company’s good repute
  • a high level of MOT failures
  • drivers hours offending.

As with any regulatory proceedings, thorough preparation and legal support is crucial to a successful outcome. What can at first blush appear to be a relatively simple, single-issue concern can develop in the course of proceedings into a far wider areas of exposure as compliance records are scrutinised and witnesses questioned.

The last chance

In summary, a Traffic Commissioner’s preliminary hearing is a company’s very last chance to satisfy the regulator that any shortcomings have been addressed, and to close down proceedings without further escalation. It is of course important not to squander this opportunity.  We have been involved in many cases in which a vehicle operator entered a preliminary hearing ill-prepared and without legal support, only for the hearing to go badly wrong and for the Traffic Commissioner to escalate the case to a full Inquiry hearing.

At Weightmans, our specialist transport regulatory lawyers have been representing company directors and transport managers at Traffic Commissioner public inquiries and preliminary hearings for years.

For further information on Traffic Commissioner Preliminary Hearings, contact our transport regulatory lawyers.

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