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Experts

Public inquiries, preliminary hearings, senior team leader meetings, and driver conduct hearings

Directors and transport managers have a legal undertaking that they will ensure the conditions on the company’s licence are complied with.

If your company holds a goods vehicle or PSV operator’s licence then you are regulated by the Office of the Traffic Commissioner. In holding an operator’s licence, every director and transport manager has given a legal undertaking to the regulator that they will ensure that the conditions on the company’s licence are complied with.

So how extensive are these conditions? Here are just a few of them:

  • The rules on drivers' hours and tachographs will be followed;
  • Vehicles and trailers will not be overloaded;
  • Vehicles will operate within speed limits;
  • Vehicles and trailers, including hired vehicles and trailers, will be kept in a fit and serviceable condition;
  • You will notify the Traffic Commissioner of any convictions against yourself or your company, the company directors, transport managers, or employees or agents of the company;
  • You will notify the Traffic Commissioner within 28 days of any other changes, for example a change to the proposed maintenance arrangements; a change in the financial status of your company (e.g. if placed in liquidation or receivership), or a change to the named directors.

There are many more. Failure to comply with these conditions is a criminal offence and will very often result in regulatory action being taken against you by the Traffic Commissioner.

So, what might this regulatory action look like?

Generally speaking, there are four main types of hearing before the Traffic Commissioner:

Public inquiries

A public inquiry hearing with the Traffic Commissioner is the most serious form of regulatory hearing for any transport operator. These are formal court proceedings held in public. This means any member of the public, journalists or an interested party can attend to watch.

The purpose of a public inquiry is for a Traffic Commissioner to “enquire” into whether or not your company, and its directors and transport managers, are complying with their licence conditions and undertakings. In advance of the hearing the Traffic Commissioner will expect you as a minimum to send in your financial standing evidence and latest maintenance and driver management records to be considered at the inquiry.

The Traffic Commissioner will always expect a director to attend to speak on the company’s behalf, alongside any transport manager. The full circumstances of any alleged shortcomings will be explored at the hearing, and it is not unusual for a Traffic Commissioner to take a robust approach to questioning.

At the end of the inquiry the Traffic Commissioner will decide whether to take regulatory action. The Commissioner’s powers are extensive and include:

  • Revoking your licence: effectively making it unlawful for your company to operate goods vehicles or PSVs;
  • Disqualifying your company or its directors from holding a licence in the future;
  • Reducing the number of vehicles that you are allowed to operate (a curtailment);
  • Suspending your licence: forcing you to park up your fleet for a period of time;
  • Issuing you with a formal warning.

The stakes are therefore extremely high, and regulatory action of some form is very common. In the Traffic Commissioner’s latest annual reports (2021/22) of 920 public inquiries, there were:

  • 302 licence revocations;
  • 89 licence suspensions;
  • 241 fleet curtailments;
  • 82 director / company disqualifications;
  • 119 transport manager disqualifications.

In only 67 cases was no action taken.

Legal representation at the earliest opportunity is of course essential.

Preliminary hearings

The biggest mistake many operators make is to assume a preliminary hearing is akin to a “friendly chat”. In fact, in all respects save two, a preliminary hearing is exactly the same as a public inquiry hearing. It takes place in the same court environment and you will be under the same scrutiny from the Traffic Commissioner as you would be at a public inquiry.

The only differences are:

  • They are not held in public, and therefore the reputational damage is less severe; and
  • The Traffic Commissioner cannot take regulatory action at the preliminary hearing stage.

If the Traffic Commissioner is not satisfied with the state of affairs at the preliminary hearing, they will bring the hearing to an end and re-list the case for a full public inquiry. If, however, the Traffic Commissioner is satisfied that any shortcomings have been addressed, then they will end the hearing with no further regulatory action.

A preliminary hearing is therefore an operator’s one “bite of the cherry” to settle proceedings with the regulator before the matter escalates to a public inquiry at which serious regulatory action will be on the table. These hearings must therefore be handled extremely carefully and obtaining legal representation at this early stage is crucial.

There were 309 preliminary hearings in 2021/22.

Senior team leader meetings

A senior team leader (SLT) meeting is a slightly different affair to a public inquiry or preliminary hearing. The main difference is that they are not court hearings and they are not chaired by a Traffic Commissioner. They are instead, as the name would suggest, meetings between an operator and a senior team leader at the Office of the Traffic Commissioner. An STL meeting is usually held when the issues of concern with a new application or existing licence are limited and have the potential of being dealt with outside of a full hearing or inquiry.

As with a preliminary hearing however, these should be treated with the utmost caution. Whilst they are not court proceedings, they are still a formal meeting with your regulator. An unsatisfactory outcome will result in a referral to the Traffic Commissioner who will then decide whether to convene a preliminary hearing or a public inquiry.

There were 57 senior team leader meetings in 2021/22.

Driver conduct hearings

These hearings are held to consider the alleged poor conduct of a professional HGV or PSV driver. They are a form of disciplinary hearing which can result in a driver’s vocational licence entitlements being suspended or revoked. A driver can even be disqualified from holding a licence in future.

A huge 2,426 professional drivers were called to a driver conduct hearing in 2021/22. Of these:

  • 218 had their licences revoked; and
  • 561 had their licences suspended.

A register of all driver conduct decisions is published online.

Before taking on a new driver, companies should always check against this register to make sure that the driver is not undergoing a suspension or revocation. These checks should continue on a regular basis throughout the course of employment.

It is always advisable for a driver to be accompanied and/or represented by their employer’s legal representative. This ensures that the interests of both the employer and driver are protected. Traffic Commissioners have remarked on many occasions that they place a great deal of weight on a decision by an employee to assist their driver with representation.

At Weightmans our Transport Regulatory team specialise in representing companies, directors, transport managers and professional drivers in all proceedings before the Traffic Commissioner. We also help companies navigate DVSA compliance investigations and desk-based assessments.

Please get in touch. These are highly specialist proceedings with a high degree of complexity and so dedicated legal representation at the earliest stage is essential.