London Uber Alles: Taxi app is legal after all, judge rules

A High Court judge is ruling on the legality of minicab-hailing app Uber.
A High Court judge is ruling on the legality of minicab-hailing app Uber.
Have your say

A HIGH Court judge rules today on the legality of minicab-hailing app Uber.

The minicab-hailing app Uber is lawful, a High Court judge has ruled.

Transport for London (TfL) had sought clarification as to whether the smartphone app breaks the law by operating in the same way as meters used by more strictly regulated black cabs to calculate fares.

Section 11 (1) of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, bars all private hire cars from being “equipped” with taximeters.

In a decisive ruling in favour of Uber, Mr Justice Ouseley declared that taximeters do not operate in the same way as the app.

He said they did not depend on GPS signals and include the app’s other new tech characteristics to calculate fares.

The San Francisco-based company records a car’s location and the journey time via smartphone and feeds the information to servers in California, and the fare is calculated and relayed back to driver and passenger.

London is one of the world’s major cities where Uber has caused controversy and triggered legal battles.

The ruling was a clear victory for TfL and Uber, who had argued at a one-day hearing earlier this month that the app was not a meter and therefore not unlawful.

The Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA), which represents a substantial proportion of the 25,000 licensed taxi drivers in London, asked the judge to rule it was a meter and ban its use.

The Licensed Private Hire Car Association (LPHCA) backed the LTDA and said the app is “an attempt to circumvent the statutory prohibition” on minicabs using meters.

Black cab drivers say the app poses a risk to public safety and customers being overcharged, with no opportunity to challenge fares before the money is automatically taken out of their bank accounts.

Government figures show the number of minicabs in the capital has risen by over a quarter (26%) in the past two years, to 62,800.

Leon Daniels, TfL’s managing director of surface transport, said: “With legal certainty established over taximeters, we will continue to work hard with all of our stakeholders to deliver taxi and private hire services which meet the needs of modern London.

“Disruptive technology and new business models have radically changed the way that taxi and private hire services operate and has widened customer choice. This is welcome. At the same time, as the regulator, we must ensure that regulatory requirements are met and are developed in a way that delivers the high standards customers deserve.

“As part of this, we are gauging public opinion on a range of potential changes to private hire regulations, including stricter rules on insurance and English language skills. We know that some ideas put forward for consultation are controversial, which is why we want as many people as possible to tell us what they think to help shape the future of private hire in London.”

A spokesman for mayor of London Boris Johnson said: “There have been strong differences of opinion in this matter and it was right that Transport for London (TfL) sought clarity through the courts.

“The mayor has been one of many to have expressed his own personal view and he respects the judgment that has been made by Mr Justice Ouseley today.

“The mayor is a strong supporter of new technology and he recognises that innovation is embraced by Londoners.

“However, there are huge challenges for the taxi and private hire trades, as well as legitimate concerns over increased vehicle emissions and congestion. That is why he is lobbying the Government to give TfL the power to cap the numbers that can operate in our city.

“It is also why TfL has commissioned a broad based consultation to seek views about how we ensure we have regulations that are fit for the 21st century.

“The consultation is absolutely not about seeking to limit customer choice. It is about ensuring higher standards, public safety, and ensuring we have effective measures to tackle pollution and congestion in a modern, growing city.”

The judge described submissions made to him on behalf of the black cab trade as “no more than an attempt, without clarity or wording or thinking, to devise something which will cause the Uber system to fall foul of section 11....”

He said the purpose of the 1998 private hire vehicle Act was “to bring the hitherto unlicensed mini-cab trade in London within a licensed framework, to protect the public using the services of mini-cabs from a variety of mischiefs including unfitness of the driver, the safety of the vehicle, and the absence of insurance.

“It was also concerned that licensing mini-cabs should not lead the public to suppose that mini-cabs or private hire vehicles were or were equivalent to black cabs.”

The judge said black cab drivers alone “may ply for hire, use taxi ranks and special lanes, and, unlike private hire vehicle (PHV) drivers, are obliged to pass a test on their knowledge of the road network.

“The fares are regulated and calculated automatically and visibly to the passenger as the journey progresses, through taximeters approved by TfL as complying with strict regulations.”

But he ruled there was no legal reason why there should be a ban on PHVs using new technology like the Uber app.

The judge said: “There is nothing in the Act, the purpose of which was to protect the public, to suggest that the mini-cab passenger was not to enjoy any improvement which technology, for all its unregulated imperfections, might bring in the speed and accuracy of their fare calculations, and breakdown of the bill, so long as the fare was not calculated by a taximeter, broadly defined.”

Parliament had always recognised “that the act of calculation could be carried out by a device using inputs from the car but not in the car. That has not changed merely because another means of doing that has been found.”

The judge granted TfL a formal declaration to explain why he thought the Uber app was not a taximeter, saying: “A taximeter, for the purposes of Section 11 of the Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, does not include a device that receives GPS signals in the course of a journey, and forwards GPS data to a server located outside of the vehicle, which server calculates a fare that is partially or wholly determined by reference to distance travelled and time taken, and sends the fare information back to the device.”

Jo Bertram, regional general manager for Uber in the UK, Ireland and the Nordics, said: “This is great news for Londoners and a victory for common sense.

“Now the High Court has ruled in favour of new technology, we hope Transport for London will think again on their bureaucratic proposals for apps like Uber.

“Compulsory five-minute waits and banning ride-sharing would be bad for riders and drivers. These plans make no sense. That’s why 130,000 people have already signed our petition against these proposals.

“We hope TfL will listen to Londoners and let Uber keep London moving.”