Traffic Commissioners (TCs) will retain the option to hold some Public Inquiries and driver conduct hearings via virtual methods, but reissued guidance from Senior TC Richard Turfitt has cautioned that an online format is suited to such work only in “limited circumstances.”
TCs’ approach to virtual hearings is formalised in expanded Statutory Document 9. It was published on 19 November. Commissioners’ scepticism around the concept first surfaced in July 2020 with the publication of their 2019/20 Annual Report, although the tone used had softened – albeit slightly – 12 months later.
Nevertheless, and while recognising that some of the TCs’ work can be undertaken virtually in an acceptable manner, the updated Statutory Document notes that “the fact that a case can be conducted remotely does not mean it should be.” It also outlines that TCs may list ‘hybrid’ hearings, where some parties attend in person and others do so via an online platform.
Experience of virtual hearings gathered by Traffic Commissioners since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has been used to form the approach outlined in the Statutory Document. The overriding principle remains one of fairness to applicants, operators and other parties. That “requires careful consideration… whether a case could be listed for remote hearing,” Mr Turfitt writes.
Some “non-complex” cases may be possible to dispose of remotely, with a variety of indicators listed as potentially indicating suitability for that avenue:
- Preferably it is a single-issue case with an expectation that the hearing should not exceed one hour
- A maximum of three attendees from the operator are required to attend
- The operator concerned has been cooperative and has complied with all directions, particularly in providing necessary documents ahead of the hearing
- The operator is professionally represented
- None of the parties involved are vulnerable and there is no risk to their participation in or understanding of the hearing through it being held virtually.
Any decision to hold a hearing remotely must be subject to those considerations. Mr Turfitt continues by saying that “virtual hearings require stricter boundaries than face-to-face hearings,” and that it may prove essential for TCs to set parameters around participation at the outset. “The presiding TC retains discretion to adjourn cases where a party complains that they are unable to follow proceedings due to technical difficulties,” he adds.
Calling of a ‘hybrid’ hearing may come about in accordance with standard case management directions that have been developed “to minimise unnecessary in-person attendance of witnesses.”