Truck Seized in the UK? Fear Not – You Can Get it Back
Having a truck seized by the UK authorities can be a nightmare. Earnings can be hit hard and in some circumstances the vehicle is permanently lost, with no insurance pay out.
The good news is seized trucks can be recovered! With no “one size fits all approach” you need to find out which legal power has been used to seize the truck.
Here are the most common reasons the UK authorities may seize a truck and some tips for getting it returned:
1) No Operators’ Licence
In the UK you need an operators’ licence if you wish to use a goods vehicle on a public road for hire or reward, or in connection to your business or trade. The police and the DVSA have the power to seize any vehicle they suspect of being used without an operators’ licence.
The proven legal owner of the vehicle can apply to Traffic Commissioner for a truck’s return. Even if a seized vehicle is being leased or is under a hire-purchase agreement, ultimate responsibility for reclaiming it lies with the owner rather than the operator. Success depends on one of the following statutory grounds being proved:
- That the person using the vehicle had, at the time, a valid operators’ licence.
- That the vehicle, at the time, was being used under an operators’ licence.
- That the owner did not know it was being used without an operators’ licence.
- That, although the vehicle was used without an operators’ licence, the owner had taken steps to prevent it, and had taken steps to prevent it happening in the future.
Once an application has been made, the owner will have to appear before the Traffic Commissioner at a hearing to explain, with evidence, how one of the four grounds set out above applies. Similarly, the DVSA will outline their reasons for seizing it. The Traffic Commissioner will take an active role in asking questions and challenging the evidence presented, before making a decision on whether or not the vehicle should be returned. The overall process is not unlike a trial, and for this reason many owners employ legal representation to help them.
2) Unlawful Cabotage Operations
Hauliers registered in the EU are permitted to drive loads from the continent into the UK. Once here, EU law places strict limits on the number of journeys a foreign truck can make on UK soil for hire or reward, before the truck must return to mainland Europe. There is a strictly enforced timespan within which these journeys may be made and specific and fully completed load paperwork must be fully completed and must accompany each cabotage journey.
The police or the DVSA can seize any vehicle suspected of operating outside this framework. The truck will be considered in the same way as a vehicle without an operators’ license – the procedures for return are the same.
3) Evidence in an Ongoing Criminal Investigation
This can be bad news for owners and operators. The police have the power to seize anything if they have reasonable grounds for believing it is evidence in relation to an offence. They can keep hold of it “so long as is necessary in all the circumstances”.
For example, if the police have grounds to forensically examine a truck, or if it is evidence as part of an ongoing trial, it is almost impossible to retrieve the truck until those legal proceedings are complete. An owner or operator could request the truck’s return by writing to the officer in the case but don’t be surprised if the answer is a resounding “no!”
4) Carrying Illicit Contraband
Illicit contraband, (e.g. weapons, drugs, tobacco and alcohol) and illegal immigrants can be a problem for hauliers undertaking cross-border journeys. UK Customs (the Border Force or HMRC) may seize anything (vehicle or otherwise) which they suspect of carrying illicit contraband. For example, a truck could be seized if the authorities suspect it has too many cigarettes on board.
In these circumstances there are two ways for an owner or operator to get their truck back:
a) Proving the seizure itself is illegal
Using the above example, if an operator can prove the cigarettes on board are within guideline allowance, they could challenge the authorities’ legal grounds for seizing the truck. To do this a Notice of Claim should be sent to HMRC or the Border Force to start court action known as ‘Condemnation’ proceedings. A court hearing will be convened (usually a Magistrates Court) and the owner will have the opportunity to explain why they feel the seizure was illegal.
There are several circumstances in which an owner may have grounds to make a challenge; owners often choose to use legal representation, particularly because they may be liable for substantial costs (including HMRC or Border Force costs) in the event of an unsuccessful claim
b) Formally requesting the vehicle’s return
Even if the seizure was legal, the owner can still make a formal “restoration request” to the authorities, setting out the reasons they feel the vehicle should be returned. These requests are dealt with “in-house” by customs officers rather than in court but.
So What Should You Do?
Having a truck seized is a stressful business. Arranging for a truck’s return can involve complex legal wrangling and strict time limits apply in most cases. If the truck isn’t recovered, the authorities can legally sell or destroy the vehicle, with the potential for very little to go back to the owner. Don’t panic – with good legal advice and representation, the prospect of a hearing before a Magistrate or Traffic Commissioner can be less daunting – even for owners and operators whose vehicles are registered abroad.
Stay on the right side of the law: keep up to date with the latest Customs rules, paperwork, vehicle maintenance and licenses to reduce the likelihood of your vehicle being seized. The most effective way of getting a truck back, is not to get it seized in the first place!
This article was written by Chris Powell, a Road Transport Solicitor at Smith Bowyer Clarke Road Transport Lawyers. It appeared in Commercial Motor on 24 November 2016.