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Solicitors for small & medium business.

Guide to Public Inquiries

Think for a moment what your operators licence is worth. The ultimate value will depend on how big your business is and how much it depends on its operators licence.

An operators licence for even a modest sized business is likely to be worth tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds to the owner. Perhaps millions to a larger transport operator. Being called to a public inquiry means that the continuation of your operators licence, and even your whole business, is uncertain.

This guide aims to answer some of the basic questions you might have on public inquiries to enable you to better understand the process. Anyone called to public inquiry should take specialist legal advice without delay.

What is a Public Inquiry?

Traffic Commissioners decide who is granted an operators licence and also decides when a licence should be taken away or subject to other sanctions. Traffic Commissioners are the regulators of the goods and passenger road transport industry.

A public inquiry is a formal legal hearing where Traffic Commissioners hear evidence in a court room setting, listen to a case and then make decisions on how their powers should be used in any given case.

There are two main types of public inquiries. There are public inquiries for regulatory reasons. These are to consider taking disciplinary action against operators who are accused of breaking the rules. The other type is where the Traffic Commissioner decides on applications. These could be applications for new operator licences or where an existing licence holder wants to make changes to their licence.


What are the Traffic Commissioners’ Powers ?

In disciplinary cases, the Traffic Commissioner can decide to terminate the licence, suspend it or reduce the number of vehicles authorised.

Conditions can also be placed on your operators licence which can restrict the way you want to do business.

The Traffic Commissioner can also disqualify operators, transport managers and company directors for either a fixed period of time or indefinitely.

Where a new licence is being considered, the Traffic Commissioner decides whether to grant or refuse the application and whether conditions should be attached.


How do they use these powers ?

When exercising their powers, Traffic Commissioners have to follow the law and act in the public interest. During the public inquiry hearing, the Traffic Commissioner has to follow a fair procedure and follow natural justice.

The guiding principles for decision making in most cases are road safety, fair competition within the transport industry and compliance with the law.

Interpreting these guiding principles gives the Traffic Commissioner significant discretion though in some circumstances decisions are mandatory. The Senior Traffic Commissioner produces guidelines in an effort to standardise decisions. The guidance is published as a number of statutory documents that can be found on the internet.


How do I know about a Public Inquiry ?

About a month before the public inquiry you will be sent a detailed letter called a call up letter. This sets out the date and time of the public inquiry and also details of the law, evidence and issues that will be considered.

Sometimes you will receive other papers with the call up letter or sometimes these will follow a short time later. Upon receiving the call up letter you should decide whether to take legal advice.

If you are not available on the date set for the public inquiry then you have the right to request an adjournment. However, it is only in exceptional circumstances than an adjournment will be allowed, such as if you have medical reasons for not being able to attend or if you are out of the country at the time. You would need to send the Traffic Commissioner firm evidence and any request must be made as early as possible.


What is the likely outcome ?

The outcome very much depends on the facts of each case. All you can do is address the specific issues in your case.

The potential outcomes are very serious. In a regulatory / disciplinary hearing, this could potentially be revocation of your operators licence and a disqualification order preventing you from applying for or holding a licence in future. Even lesser outcomes such as conditions or reducing your vehicle fleet can have significant long-lasting consequences.

The annual statistics published for the outcome of cases in 2013 shows :


Can I appeal the decision?

Traffic Commissioner decisions are very hard to appeal. This is because they will only be set aside on narrow grounds. You would need to persuade an appeal court that the Traffic Commissioner had made an error on the law, had acted unfairly or was so plainly wrong that the decision cannot be justified.

Because decisions are so hard to overturn, you should see the public inquiry as your one and only chance to put your case.

If your public inquiry does not turn out well, you should get advice quickly.


What is the procedure at Public Inquiry?

After you arrive at the venue on the day of the public inquiry the Traffic Commissioner’s clerk will come and speak to you and take your details.

In the court room, when the hearing starts the Traffic Commissioner will introduce the hearing and make any preliminary remarks.

Your solicitor will have the opportunity to address the Traffic Commissioner. After that DVSA (formerly called VOSA) will present their evidence if they are involved in your case. Your solicitor will cross examine DVSA and probe their evidence, this is often a very crucial part of the case. The Traffic Commissioner will then ask questions of DVSA.

In certain cases there may be other witnesses giving evidence against you. These could be police officers, staff from other government agencies and sometimes other operators, drivers or transport managers. In cases involving environmental issues, members of the public may be involved.

Once the evidence against you has been heard, it is then your opportunity as the operator (or applicant if a new application is involved) to present your case.

Once all the evidence has been presented to the Traffic Commissioner, your solicitor (or you if you are not represented) will make a closing statement. This will normally involve a summary of the evidence that has been heard, legal argument and an explanation of your case. This is the moment to persuade the Traffic Commissioner, the closing submission is very important.


What kind of evidence is involved ?

The most obvious type of evidence is oral testimony from witnesses. You don’t usually take an oath at a public inquiry but everyone is under a duty to tell the truth and failing to do so is a criminal offence. Every public inquiry is tape recorded.

As well as witness evidence, there is likely to be a lot of evidence in written form. A few weeks before your public inquiry the Traffic Commissioner’s office will forward you a set of papers called the Traffic Commissioner’s brief. The brief is effectively a copy of the file that the Traffic Commissioner has on your case. Briefs can sometimes be large, sometimes running to several hundred pages.

The Traffic Commissioner’s brief will include items such as DVSA / VOSA reports, records on you and copies of evidence collected during the course of an investigation.


What evidence should I put forward?

This is where you need to plan carefully and get good advice.

There are many examples of the type of evidence that could be relevant to your case. Whether evidence is relevant is one thing, what evidence will help you succeed in your case is a separate question and one where specialist advice is necessary.

Pieces of evidence are only the basic building blocks of your case. Whether and how evidence is put is a matter to approach very carefully. Sometimes there are reasons for not putting forward evidence that appears helpful to you and sometimes, conversely, there are good reasons to put forward evidence that on the face of it doesn’t look helpful to your case. There are sometimes strategic considerations.

Some of the different types of evidence that could be included in your case are:

Witnesses in person

Witness statements

Vehicle records and certificates

Maintenance records

Tachographs and driver records

Hand books

Written instructions to drivers


Computer records


Training certificates


Business plan

Expert reports

Membership certificates

Letters and references

Computer records

Bank statements

Employment records

Financial records / tax returns

Planning permission

Government guidelines

... and many much more.

Do I need a solicitor ?

The letter calling you to the public inquiry stronlgy recommends that you take legal advice and consider representation.

The simple fact is that a public inquiry is a very serious legal hearing. The effect of decisions made at a public inquiry are potentially far more serious than rulings of other courts and tribunals and could see you being put out of business.

The cost of getting good representation at a public inquiry will represent only a small fraction of your turnover and the downside of getting this wrong is potentially devastating.


A Few Words About Our Service

My firm specialised in transport law and I deal with a large number of public inquiries each year in all parts of the UK.

I have been involved in transport law since the late 1990s and it is what I specialise in. Directly dealing with public inquiries is about 80% of my work and I regularly appear at public inquiries in all parts of England, Wales and Scotland. I therefore have a significant breadth of experience and expertise to help with your public inquiry. My clients enjoy a high level of success.

Whoever represents you at your public inquiry, you must be confident that you can work with them and that they understand fully how to run your case successfully.


If you’re facing a public inquiry and don’t know what to do, please call us now for a free, no obligation telephone discussion and let us explain how we can help you.  You can call us on 0800 1777 522, contact us by email or use our free enquiry form.  

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