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Preliminary Hearings

A preliminary hearing is a type of formal legal hearing held by the Traffic Commissioner as an alternative to a full pulic inquiry.  They are usually held in the public inquiry rooms at the Traffic Commissioner's office but they are private hearings, not open to the public or the press.  If you've been called to a preliminary hearing then you should take legal advice from a transport solicitor.  There are potentialy serious consequences involved and a good transport solicitor can advise you on what's involved, what you need to do and if necessary represent you at the hearing itself. 

Types Of Preliminary Hearing 

They are usually less formal than a public inquiry and can sometimes be short.  There are several types of preliminary hearing depending on what the purpose of the hearing is.  The types of preliminary hearing are :

1. Preliminary Hearing to Consider if Disciplinary Action Might be Necessary 

This type of preliminary hearing is held to enable the Traffic Commissioner to decide whether it is necessary to hold a full formal public inquiry.  This is the most common type of preliminary hearing.  Usually the Traffic Commissioner will have concerns which may lead to disciplinary action against the operator licence, but the Commissioner is not yet sure whether or not a full public inquiry is necessary.   This therefore gives you an opportunity to put your case forward to persuade the Traffic Commissioner that further action is not necessary.  A transport solicitor will be able to help you prepare for the hearing and how to put forward a case to avert any further action.  What this involves in practice will depend very much on the issues involved and the facts surrounding your case.  

2. Preliminary Hearing to Consider an Operator's Licence Application 

Many applications for new operators licences or for variation to an existing licence hit upon problems.  There are strict criteria that apply to the granting of operator licence applications.  Where there are questions over whether the criteria are met or doubts over goods repute or finances for example, the Traffic Commissioner may decide that the best thing to do is call a preliminary hearing.  The purpose is to deal with outstanding concerns face to face with the operator, rather than go through the stringent process of a full public inquiry.  Again, the preliminary hearing should be seen as an opportunity to deal with potential problems before matters escalate to the stage of a full public inquiry.  

3. Preliminary Hearing as a Directions Hearing

This is the less frequent type of preliminary hearing.  This type will happen as a pre-cursor to a full public inquiry, once a public inquiry has been called.  The idea is that this type of hearing is to deal with points of procedure before the full public inquiry takes place.  Examples of this might be where there is a discussion about what witnesses there will be at the full public inquiry and what kind of issues the Traffic Commissioner wants to see evidence on specifically.  This then avoids delays or misunderstanding once the main public inquiry gets underway.

What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing ?  

It all depends on what the issues are and what type of case it is as to what happens exactly.  Every case is different.  Generally, the hearing is far less formal than a public inquiry.  It will often take the form of a discussion with the Traffic Commissioner.  Evidence is not formally set out in the same way at a public inquiry, but records, documents and verbal explanations will be taken into account.  The Traffic Commissioner will listen to submissions from your solicitor and then make a decision at the end of the hearing.    

What Decisions Can be Taken at a Preliminary Hearing ?

If there are disciplinary issues involved, then the Traffic Commissioner can decide whether to call a full public inquiry for another day.  The Traffic Commissioner only has the power to revoke an operators licence or impose other disciplinary sanctions at a full public inquiry.  Alternatively the Traffic Commissioner can decide at a preliminary hearing that no further action is necessary or conclude with formal written warning.  With preliminary hearings dealing with applications, the Commissioner has the power to grant an application (with or without conditions) or call a full public inquiry.  

How Many Preliminary Hearings Take Place 

Until very recently, Preliminary Hearings were rare.  The Traffic Commissioners have made a conscious decision to hold more preliminary hearings as a way to reserve full public inquiries only for the more serious or complicated cases.  The intention is that many cases dealt with at preliminary hearings can be sorted out without a full public inquiry being needed.  

Annual statistics for the number of preliminary hearings were only published for the first time in 2016.  These show that in the year from 2015 to 2016 there were 491 Traffic Commissioner preliminary hearings held in England, Scotland and Wales.  These break down as 2 in the Wales Traffic Area; 60 in the East of England Traffic Area at Cambridge; 63 in the North East in Leeds; 130 in the North West at Golborne, Warrington; 114 in the London and South East Traffic Area at Eastbourne; 7 in the West Midlands at Edgbaston, Birmingham; 63 in the Western Traffic Area at Bristol and 52 in Scotland at Edinburgh.  

Getting Legal Advice 

Preliminary hearings are formal legal hearings with potentially significant legal and commercial consequences for you and your business.  In all cases it is sensible and usually necessary to have some good legal advice and expert help preparing and presenting your case.  The more advice and professional input from a specialist you receive the better the final outcome will be.  

CONTACT US ABOUT A PRELIMINARY HEARING  

Please get in touch with us without charge or obligation to discuss your case with an expert transport solicitor and so we can give you an idea about how we can help you.   We will be very glad to talk through your situation and review your papers free of charge to help you to make an informed decision about what to do.

You can call us any time on 0800 1777 522 or alternatively you can make a Free Online Enquiry 


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We recently represented two companies who were both called to the same public inquiry. Although separate entities, the companies were closely connected because of having the same set of directors. One...
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The current system of regulating goods vehicle operations throughout Northern Ireland came into effect in 2012. The system for licensing goods vehicles and taking disciplinary action against licence h...

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Latest Transport Law

Transport Law
We recently represented two companies who were both called to the same public inquiry. Although separate entities, the companies were closely connected because of having the same set of directors. One of the companies (the Operator) had years previously been issued with a restricted goods vehicle operator’s licence. The other company had recently applied for the same kind of licence (the Applicant).

Over the previous year, the directors had decided to progressively move most of the Operator’s business interests to its sister company the Applicant. Without understanding the potential consequences, and before being granted its operator’s licence, the Applicant began using the Operator’s heavy goods vehicle. The Operator company had not informed the Traffic Commissioner (TC) of its change in business arrangements and of the apparent change of entity (though the companies were actually wholly owned subsidiaries of another company – see below).

The Public Inquiry was convened because of changes at this business group and a fundamental misunderstanding of the operator’s licence regime, and that there had been what appeared to be a change of entity involving the companies.

The TC needed to be satisfied as to whether the companies were not unfit to hold an operator’s licence due to relevant activities and convictions, and about the events relating to a change in the circumstances of the licence holder. The Operator risked revocation of its licence. The Applicant was at risk of not having its licence granted.

In advance of the inquiry, and to start building their case, we obtained as much information as we could about the businesses and provided each company comprehensive legal advice. We examined the companies’ compliance systems and made recommendations about immediate and longer-term changes that needed to be implemented. On our recommendations, the companies invested time and resources into their maintenance and other systems

As a result of our preliminary work and advice, the companies were fully prepared for the public inquiry hearing. In particular, to answer questions and provide evidence about the apparent change of entity.

At the hearing we demonstrated that the companies were running professional and competent businesses. With specific reference to the issue of the apparent change of entity, the TC accepted that Section 3(4) of the Goods vehicle (licencing of operators) Act 1995 was relevant and that this was not a typical “change of entity” case – because of the companies being subsidiaries. We were able to persuade the TC that the issues that lead to the inquiry arose out of ignorance rather than an attempt to mislead or gain financial advantage

The TC granted the new licence to the Applicant with the Operator company voluntarily surrendering its licence. The directors were delighted with the outcome of the public inquiry hearing and that they managed to avoid the damaging consequences they feared.
Transport Law

We were approached by a small business owner to represent them at the a public inquiry which had been called to consider their application for a new passenger vehicle operator’s licence.

The person applying for the licence had a long background of work in the transport industry as a driver but had never before operated his own transport business. One of the key issues was that the nominated transport manager was also nominated some other licences and the Traffic Commissioner was concerned whether this meant that the transport manager would be able to properly carry out their duties on so many licences at once. 

Transport Law
The current system of regulating goods vehicle operations throughout Northern Ireland came into effect in 2012. The system for licensing goods vehicles and taking disciplinary action against licence holders is now largely in line with the system for the rest of the United Kingdom, though with some differences. There are about 5,980 goods vehicle operator licences issued in Northern Ireland.

The legislation is the same and the appeal process against decisions made at public inquiries is now one system covering the whole of the UK.

One key difference is that in Northern Ireland there are no Traffic Commissioners. The person in Northern Ireland who discharges similar functions to the Traffic Commissioners in Great Britain is the head of the Transport Regulation Unit (TRU), part of the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment. The current head of the TRU is Donna Knowles who has been in this position since 2014.

It is the Head of the TRU who ultimately decides who is fit to hold a goods vehicle operators licence in Northern Ireland. The Head of the TRU holds public inquiries to determine whether an operators licence should be granted and also to decide whether disciplinary action is needed against operator licence holders whose fitness has been brought into question.

There are roughly about 50 goods vehicle public inquiries in Northern Ireland each year. The public inquiry hearings are usually held at Causeway Exchange, 1-7 Bedford Street in Belfast.

The public inquiry hearing itself is a formal legal hearing. It looks and feels a little like a court hearing but the rules of procedure are less rigid and formal. The public inquiry hearing will involve oral and documentary evidence and at the end of the process the Head of the TRU will make a decision.

Currently, the public inquiry process in Northern Ireland relates only to goods vehicle licence holders, it does not involve passenger vehicle licences.

Outcomes of Goods Vehicle Public Inquiries in Belfast

The Heard of the TRU has wide ranging powers over operator licence holders. Where a public inquiry is convened to decide whether or not to grant a new licence, the licence could be granted or refused.

Where the public inquiry is to consider disciplinary action against an operator licence holder, the Head of the TRU has the power to revoke (ie terminate) an operators licence; to suspend it or reduce the number of vehicle operated under the licence. They have the power to add conditions to an operators licence and to disqualify people from being involved in holding an operators licence in future.

What to do if you've been called to a public inquiry in Eastbourne, London or the South East

First of all, recognise that any public inquiry called for any reason is a very serious thing. Secondly recognise that getting legal advice and having an experienced transport law solicitor on your side is at least half of the problem sorted.

A good transport law specialist solicitor will be able to get stuck into your case and do all sorts of important things to get you ready to face the public inquiry and come away with a good outcome.

We strongly recommend that you speak to us urgently if you've had a call to public inquiry. Nearly all of our clients (well over 90%) have a successful outcome at their public inquiries.

We handle public inquiries in Belfast as well all over the UK. We know how to prepare and present a successful case. We've been doing it for years and have helped hundreds of operators through what is always a very difficult and uncertain time.

Your chance of a successful outcome at your public inquiry increases dramatically if you have experienced and skilled legal representation. So choosing a good transport solicitor is of vital importance.

Contact Us About Your Public Inquiry

Please get in touch with us without charge or obligation. Ask to speak to Simon Newman about your public inquiry.

Simon will then give you an idea about how we can help you. He will be very glad to talk through your situation and review your papers free of charge to help you to make an informed decision about what to do.

You can call us any time on 0800 1777 522 or alternatively you can email on Simon.Newman@NALegal.co.uk