What’s going on here?
Uber has won its legal battle over a supposed breach of Victorian-era taxi legislation.
What does this mean?
Uber was accused of breaching the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 which states drivers cannot “ply for hire” - an old-fashioned phrase which simply means that private hire vehicles (like the kind Uber use) are unable to operate as black cabs without the relevant black cab license. The case was sparked by an incident in Reading in which an Uber driver was accused by inspectors of “plying for hire” without a license.
This issue arose as Reading authorities claimed that displaying an Uber vehicle’s location on the Uber app is equivalent to displaying a “for hire” sign on the vehicle. As such, this would classify Uber cars as black cabs, which need licenses to operate (and not a private hire vehicle which needs no such license). However, in the recent High Court case concerning the matter, two judges found that Uber drivers do not fall within the phrase “plying for hire” in the meaning given to it by the 1847 legislation. Lord Justice Flaux reasoned that displaying an Uber vehicle’s location on an app is not equivalent to putting a “for hire sale” in the window. Instead, he likened it to minicab companies informing customers that they have cars nearby.
What’s the big picture effect?
Although this case initially seems to only be of significance to the ongoing tensions between Uber and taxi drivers at large, the reasoning in Flaux LJ’s judgement hints at how the law will consider internet technology in future commercial disputes. Specifically, it focuses on the use of the internet in order to attract custom. Seemingly, by using an app to advertise its services, Uber has been able to escape the liabilities that those services traditionally entail (applying for a black cab license). As Gerald Gouriet QC (a licensing law expert) put it, the case fails to adequately address the issues concerning “soliciting for custom by electronic means” as it seemingly puts arbitrary restrictions on legal terms. This can be seen here by the requirements imposed by the court on what it means to “ply for hire”.
It appears that the courts will enable companies to use new technology when promoting their services by manipulating the rules around those services. However, it is important to bear in mind the specific context of this case when drawing wider conclusions.
One thing remains clear — Uber’s battle with taxi drivers and transport services is far from over as questions around its fundamental nature and business model continue to persist… questions that are fuelled by cases such as this.
Report written by Connor B.
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