As we move into the New Year, it is inevitable that the number of court cases involving the haulage industry will increase as the predictable result of the inevitable increase in enforcement.
Although the operation of a commercial vehicle on a public road presents the same potential for the commission of an offence as does the use of a private car, the fact that an offence has been committed in a commercial vehicle tends to make the offence appear to be more serious in both the eyes of the public and the courts.
Additionally, whilst more drivers of private cars are reported for speeding offences, clearly reflecting the greater number of cars using the public roads, very few car drivers are stopped to enable their vehicle to be subjected to a thorough mechanical check.
The major difference between the driver and operator of a commercial vehicle and a private motorist lies in the fact that any conviction arising out of the use of a commercial vehicle may be reported to the Traffic Commissioner and there may be further sanctions, including the loss of an Operator’s licence. The action taken by the Traffic Commissioner will depend upon the nature of the offence, and, of course, the size of the penalty will be seen as a clear indicator of the perceived gravity of the incident.
The transport operator is, therefore, in a unique situation facing the possibility of a double penalty for a single offence: with the potential for the second penalty to have a far greater impact than the first.
Notwithstanding that threat, an operator can see many offences as being no more than part and parcel of the risks arising from the daily operation of commercial vehicles and, for that reason, will want to spend as little time and money on the problem as possible, but the fact that a conviction is likely to be reported should never be forgotten.
Another very real risk arises from the fact that many judges, understandably, have no knowledge either of the workings of a commercial vehicle, or of the administrative requirements of a haulage undertaking. Add to this, the fact that commercial vehicles and their drivers are always portrayed in the worst possible light and generally are blamed for any problem on the road. Unhappily many courts appear to welcome the opportunity to ‘strike a blow for the public’ and impose penalties that are disproportionate to the alleged offence.
It is against this background that an operator needs to decide whether or not the cost of representation in the court is likely to be justified by the result. The purpose of representation is to try to make sure that the court understands the circumstances in which the alleged offence came to be committed. In a case of overloading, for instance, whether in relation to the permitted axle weight or to the permitted train weight, the load may have been put on the vehicle many miles away from the operating centre, and it is not unknown for a customer to mis-describe the weight of a load.
Equally, the responsibility for the repair of, or for the maintenance of, a vehicle may have been contracted out to a company whose reputation was excellent even if a subsequent check by the enforcement authorities found faults.
These facts need to be explained to the court in sufficient detail to enable the court to understand the difficulties faced by the operator. It should be the job of the representative to persist with the explanation even if the court is initially hostile. It is arguable that a court appearance should be seen as an opportunity to educate both the court and the public. The fact is that the cost of representation is nearly always a justifiable expense.
For advice on any area of road transport law, contact Jared Dunbar on 01829 773 105.
Content written on 06 March 2014 by Jonathan Lawton.

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