Licensing committees

Council decision are either made by the full council of councillors or delegated to smaller committees.  In the case of taxi and private hire licensing, decision making is usually delegated to a licensing or regulatory committee.  Licensing committees are delegated with a range of decision-making powers including these relating to whether licence applicants or licence holders are fit and proper people.

Licensing committees must be quorate in order for their decision-making powers to be lawful.  This means that a minimum number of councillors, specified in the council’s rules, must be present at a hearing.

These committees operate in a quasi-judicial way.  This simply means that these committees have the same powers and are governed by the same procedures as if they were a court of law or a judge.  This means that a licensing committee is obliged to objectively determine facts and draw conclusions from them so as to provide the basis of an official action such as to refuse an application or to revoke a licence.  This also includes a duty to provide clear and comprehensive reasons for decisions they have reached.

Licence applicants and licence holder can be referred to a licensing committee for a range of reasons and these will differ depending on each individual council (as licensing policies differ between licensing authorities).  If, however, you are referred to a licensing committee, it is important you understand your rights, understand what is likely to happen and what to expect.

Your rights

Right to be heard before a decision is taken

The fact that licensing committees operate in a quasi-judicial way, means that the rules of natural justice will also apply to decisions made by it.  The first rule of natural justice is that people must be given a fair and reasonable opportunity to defend themselves.  In terms of taxi and private hire licensing, this means that licence holders or applicants must be given the opportunity to attend a hearing and to address the licensing committee before a decision is made in relation to their licence or application.

Right to know the case against you

It follows from the above therefore also that a licence holder or applicant for a licence must know the case against them.  It is after all not possible to exercise the right to be heard if you do not know what the case against you is.  This right also relates to having access to supporting evidence and documents. Often licence holders or applicants rely on officer’s reports to prepare but fail to also ask for supporting documents and other evidence that supports the case against them.

Right to a fair hearing

The second rule of natural justice is that licence holders or applicants have the right to a fair hearing.  This is also a right under human rights legislation.  This means that licensing committee hearings must be free of bias and councillors who are making decisions about your licence or application must not have a prejudicial interest in your case.

The licensing committee should have a code of conduct that sets out how the council and the committee will deal with councillor interests and conduct.

Right to be represented

A licence holder or applicant has the right to be represented before a licensing committee.  This is an important point because often cases against licence holders or applicants can be complicated taking into account the legislation, local policy and the individual circumstances of cases.

The right representation before a licensing committee can often result in better outcomes for licence holders or applicants and this will negate the need for lengthy and expensive appeals.

Right of appeal

A decision to refuse, revoke or suspend a driver’s licence or application carries a right of appeal.  This means that anyone aggrieved by such a decision can apply to, in this case, the Magistrates’ Court.  The appeal application must be made within 21 days of receipt of a decision notice and must set out the grounds for the appeal.  Taxi Defence Barristers can assist licence holders or applicants with lodging an appeal and representing them.

Reasons

Associated with the right of appeal discussed above, is a statutory responsibility on licensing committees to provide licence holders or applicants with clear and comprehensive reasons for the decisions.  This is particularly important in cases where a licence is refused, revoked or suspended.

As mentioned above, a decision to refuse or revoke a licence has a right of appeal attached to it.  The starting point in any taxi or private hire licensing appeal case is the reasons given for such an appeal.

An important court ruling dealing with licensing appeals is the case of Hope and Glory Public House Ltd, R v City of Westminster Magistrates Court & Ors [2011].  In that case, Lord Justice Toulson said:

“It is right in all cases that the magistrates’ court should pay careful attention to the reasons given by the licensing authority for arriving at the decision under appeal, bearing in mind that Parliament has chosen to place responsibility for making such decisions on local authorities. 

“The weight which the magistrates should ultimately attach to those reasons must be a matter for their judgment in all the circumstances, taking into account the fullness and clarity of the reasons, the nature of the issues and the evidence given on the appeal.”

Appeals

The licensing committee’s decision will therefore form an important part in any appeal.  In my PHTM article “Appealing a decision of a licensing authority” (November 2018 edition) I discussed the right and procedure for dealing with taxi and private hire appeals in more detail.

The point I wanted to reiterate in this article is that fact that the appeal hearing is a hearing de novo which means that the appellate court (Magistrates’ Court) will hear and deal with the appeal afresh or as if the case had not previously been heard nor decided.

The advantage of a hearing de novo is that it gives the appellant second and fresh opportunity to present their case. In practice, the appellate court will hear the case afresh (de novo) and from this will draw its own conclusions and judgements on the case and its merits. It will then compare its own conclusions and determinations to that of the licensing authority’s, which will form the basis for a decision on whether the licensing authority was wrong (or not). If the appellate court determines that, in its view, the licensing authority’s decision was wrong, it should overturn the decision.

How to prepare

Although licensing committee hearings are less formal than a court of law, it is still important that licence holders or applicants take the matter seriously.  As I previously alluded to in this article, a positive outcome at this stage will negate the need for lengthy and expensive appeals later on.

Licence holders or applicants should in the first instance give serious consideration to being represented.  Not only is this a right but from my years of experience of representing the trade before a range of committees, there is no doubt that the right representation significantly increases the chances of a positive outcome.

There are a number of practical considerations for any licence holder or applicant who is due to appear before a licensing committee:

  • Committee procedure – Licensing authorities will have different procedures for administering committee hearings. Licensing authorities will have their procedure published and licence holders or applicants can ask for this information to prepare.
  • Prepare – Make sure you take the time to properly prepare for your appearance before a licensing committee. Preparation includes having a clear understanding of the reasons why you have been referred to the licensing committee.  Make sure you read the officer’s report but also the supporting documents and local licensing policy.

Since there is a right to be heard, you should expect questions form the licensing committee.  This is not the same of cross-examination in a court of law but, members on the licensing committee will want to question you on the circumstances and facts that may have led to your appearance before the committee.   Be clear on your facts and information and do not attempt to be obscure of vague about information.

  • Support your case – In addition to verbally addressing the licensing committee and answering any questions that may have for you, you can also submit evidence to further support your case in terms of what you want to put across. It is advisable to submit any evidence in advance of the committee (normally 48 hours in advance) to ensure everyone has had an opportunity to read it. This is particularly important where the evidence is long or complicated.
  • With or without you – Although there is a general right to be heard before a decision is taken a licensing committee could, in very specific and extraordinary circumstances, make decisions about your licence or application in your absence. It is important to make sure you attend regardless of how you feel about the hearing.

Where you are unable to attend, you must inform the licensing committee and you must also request a deferment. At the end of the day a decision to defer will normally be at the committee chair’s discretion but it is important to ask for the deferment notwithstanding. It will be helpful to support your request to defer with further information to support the request. If you are unsure, seek legal advice to help with drafting such a request.

Concluding remarks

Appearing before a licensing committee can be worrying for licence holders or applicants because there is potentially a lot at stake.

The best advice I can give a licence holder or licence applicant is to seek specialist legal advice.  If you chose to do so or not, it is important to understand your rights and to make sure you are as well prepared as you can be to increase your changes of a positive outcome.

It is important to also understand that if the licensing committee’s decision goes against you there is a right of appeal which will present you with another opportunity to make your case.

Stephen McCaffrey

Regulatory defence barrister specialising in taxi and private hire licensing law, appeals and defence.

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