Poor communication and delays left people not knowing whether they could drive

Organisation we investigated: Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA)

Date investigations closed: 27 March 2019 and 30 September 2019

The complaints

Complainant M complained that it took DVLA too long to reach a decision about issuing them with a driving licence and did not consider the advice of Complainant M’s doctors, who suggested that their licence should be reinstated. Complainant M also said that DVLA did not allow them to undertake a driving assessment.  

Complainant B complained that during the process of reapplying for their licence, DVLA contacted the wrong consultant, did not obtain consent before contacting the consultant, and offered them a driving assessment when its outcome would have made no difference.  

Both complainants told us that being without their licence had a great impact on their lives. Complainant M said that having to wait such a long time for a decision added to their distress. Complainant B said that the process caused them additional stress on top of their illness.

What we found

DVLA referred Complainant M’s case to panel for expert advice, in line with available guidance. However, DVLA took 11 months to reach a decision after Complainant M provided new information. This was far longer than the 90 working-day service standard the DVLA set for itself for 90% of its medical cases.  

During this time, Complainant M, their solicitors and MP were chasing a response from DVLA. We found that DVLA did not give them a clear understanding of the process of applying to panel for advice, how long it might take or how many panel members were providing reports.  

We were not able to understand why DVLA requested the advice of two panel members but only one was received and considered. This was because DVLA failed to retain any records which would evidence the reasons for its decision. Complainant M was therefore left with little information about the panel process and had to wait several months to find out DVLA’s decision.  

We did not find that DVLA should have followed the advice of Complainant M’s doctors as DVLA is legally responsible for deciding if a person is medically unfit to drive, and this decision is at DVLA’s discretion. We also did not find that DVLA should have allowed Complainant M to undertake a driving assessment since they could not satisfy the requirements for safe licensing. 

In Complainant B’s case, the DVLA eventually issued them with a driving licence. We did not find that DVLA had contacted the wrong consultant or that it did so without obtaining Complainant B’s consent, as they had provided a form with written consent.  

However, DVLA’s communication with Complainant B was not open and accountable. It did not explain to Complainant B why it contacted a different consultant to the one they indicated on their application form and did not clearly explain that a driving assessment would not help with their application for a driving licence. Moreover, on one occasion when Complainant B called DVLA to check the progress of the case, the person they spoke to was not able to access information about the case because the notes were unclear, leaving Complainant B uncertain about the actions DVLA was taking. 


Complainant M had a condition which caused severe pain. Complainant M’s GP contacted the DVLA to inform it that they were taking diamorphine (a very strong painkiller) for their condition. DVLA revoked Complainant M’s licence as they were unfit to drive at this time.  

Complainant M provided information which stated that although they were on a high dose of opiates, this did not cause any side effects. They applied for their licence, which DVLA refused. Complainant M appealed that decision, but the Magistrate’s Court dismissed their appeal and DVLA again refused to issue them with a licence.  

Complainant M’s new GP and pain management consultant wrote to DVLA to say they were fit to drive. DVLA referred the issue to a medical panel for expert advice. This process was taking too long and Complainant M complained to the Independent Complaints Assessor (ICA — the second-tier complaints handler for complaints about Department for Transport’s agencies), who wrote to them and acknowledged that DVLA was taking too long to decide. DVLA then wrote to Complainant M and said it would not issue them with a driving licence.  

Complainant B was diagnosed with lung cancer and an asymptomatic brain tumour. Complainant B stopped driving and surrendered their driving licence when they started treatment. They reapplied for their licence three months after completing treatment.  

DVLA refused Complainant B’s application based on guidance which stated that a person should wait at least a year after completing treatment to be able to drive. Five months later, Complainant B’s consultant in palliative medicine told DVLA that Complainant B never had any symptoms from their brain tumour. DVLA decided that Complainant B could reapply for their driving licence and Complainant B provided the relevant forms including consent for DVLA to contact their specialists. After contacting the palliative consultant again, DVLA issued Complainant B with a licence valid for one year.  

Putting it right

We recommended that DVLA should acknowledge its failings and apologise to Complainants M and B. We also recommended that DVLA should make a payment of £200 to Complainant B and £250 to Complainant M in recognition of the uncertainty and distressed they suffered because of DVLA’s failings.  

Complainant M also highlighted that many of the issues that have caused problems in their case were highlighted in our report Driven to Despair. In particular, the lack of transparency about the process followed and how cases are assessed by panel, as well as failures in record keeping and accountability.  

DVLA told us that it has introduced a new system to try to ensure panel referrals are treated in a timely manner and we welcomed these changes. We also recommended that DVLA should review learning from this complaint and ensure that there is enough information available to applicants about the process of applying to panel, as well ensuring that there is adequate record keeping of referrals to panel and communication with panel members.  

DVLA complied with our recommendations.

This case summary is featured in the Ombudsman's Casework Report 2019.