Virtual Public Inquiry is ‘no alternative’ to in-person hearing, say TCs

Potential for further Public Inquiry (PI) hearings to be undertaken via virtual means “is limited in scope,” the Traffic Commissioners (TCs) say in their Annual Report for 2019/20.

A handful of “straightforward” PIs were held via Microsoft Teams during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic after in-person hearings were suspended. While that proved somewhat beneficial, the experience has reinforced TCs’ views that virtual PIs “do not offer an alternative to the large majority of in-person hearings.” Face-to-face PIs in England resumed on 6 July. In Scotland and Wales they will resume on 4 August and 6 August respectively.

Various factors contrive to make virtual PIs impractical. A reliance on paperwork-based evidence, with much of it being produced on the day of the hearing, is a barrier. Additionally, software issues may disrupt efforts to hold a virtual Public Inquiry. A secure, stable platform is required as a foundation for those hearings. TCs “currently do not have that product,” they add.

Further complication is brought by the fact that most parties appearing at PI do so unrepresented. “That raises the question of what video conferencing system the other parties in a virtual PI would use. In some cases, no suitable option may be available, rendering virtual hearings impossible,” the report continues.

While virtual PIs are out of favour, the TCs note that there is still a need to ensure that facilities for in-person tribunals are fit for purpose. That includes making them accessible to public transport users; permitting the safe storage and handling of personal data; and allowing for fair proceedings.

In a suggestion that TCs still do not believe that all of their tribunal facilities are suitable, they note that “there is no evidence that the various proposals put forward, including moving TCs to whoever part of the DVSA estate is surplus, or separating TCs from their clerking and caseworker support, are actually viable.”