Traffic Commissioners have started in the first instance to use more preliminary hearings and senior team leader interviews to deal with cases involving passenger and freight operators, and then if the hearing is unsatisfactory to progress to a full public inquiry.
Failure to attend without a good reason is frowned upon and might lead to a visit by DVSA officers and are reported to the Office of the Traffic Commissioners (OTC), who may decide to take matters further. In recent times, that could mean a summons to a preliminary hearing, designed to assess to what level the operator of passenger and freight vehicles has flouted the laws they are governed by. There is also the public inquiry (PI), reserved for more serious offences.
“A preliminary hearing is called, if in the TC’s opinion there is any failing/infringement/discrepancy by an operator can be resolved easily. The preliminary hearing is just really to determine if the operator’s failings are serious enough to call for a full PI,” advised Charlie Ahmed of Invergold
A preliminary hearing is informal, and no action can be taken, unless both parties agree to act. Charlie advises: “In my personal experience, a preliminary hearing has rarely become a public inquiry, but obviously that might not be the case all the time.”
That anecdotal evidence is backed up by Richard Turfitt, senior traffic commissioner and TC for the east of England. He says that around 95% of preliminary hearings have found a suitable response from the operator and were acted upon. They also often end up with improved compliance. In addition, the reduced set-up costs less to organize represents better value for money. That is important, he says, since operators fund the activities of the OTC.
A PI is an expensive exercise that requires preparation, staff, time and a venue. Using an alternative method is a more efficient way for TCs to execute their role with greater flexibility.
HOW TO PREPARE
Even a preliminary hearing, however, should not be taken lightly. As the name suggests, it is a ‘hearing’ before a TC or deputy TC. It will be recorded and is not unlike a court hearing It is more serious than another recent type of engagement with TCs, an interview between the operator and a senior team leader. A senior team leader meeting will usually take place with a caseworker in the more informal surroundings of an interview room. In many cases, it is a fact-finding exercise in which operators will be asked for further information about an area of their operation that concerns the OTC.
A senior team leader interview is recommended for many reasons: if the operators’ failings are specific to one area – like brake failures; if an investigation needs updating; to see how an operator has responded to a prohibition and/or responded to a DVSA investigation; to set out future compliance with audits at regular intervals; to establish training and refreshers for transport managers’ training; and establish driver training procedures.
Whichever type of meeting they are attending, operators need to bring any evidence that supports their case and be prepared to answer questions. “When the issues involved are simple and limited in number, senior team leader interviews can be an effective way for an operator to account for and allay any concerns the OTC may have concerning the management of their licence,” advised Charlie.
Even when a PI is likely, a preliminary hearing or a senior team leader interview may still be called by the TC to act as guidance for how a PI might proceed, as well as a chance to resolve any issues.
According to data published for the first time in the traffic commissioners’ 2016-17 annual reports, there were 495 preliminary hearings and 106 senior team leader interviews in total.
Charlie Ahmed does issue a word of warning to operators. “Problems can arise when operators fail to appreciate that either a preliminary hearing or senior team leader interview is still part of the investigation and enforcement process, and not just a cosy chat. Operators would do well to remember that anything said will be considered by the TC before deciding on whether to escalate the case to a full PI. It is not uncommon for an operator called to PI to be confronted with what they said in a preliminary hearing or senior team leader interview. For this reason, I would always advise operators to seek legal advice at an early stage.”
For more information contact Charlie Ahmed – Invergold Associates Tel. 0333 3350074 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org