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Uber taxi app - systematically breaking the law?

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Transport for London (TfL) are taking legal action against the app-based ride-hailing service, Uber, in order to determine whether the company allegedly breaks the law by effectively acting as a ‘taximeter’.

(This blog was written before Mr Justice Ouseley's decision, on 16 October, that the Uber app does not operate in the same way as a taximeter as a taximeter does not depend on GPS signals or other 'new-tech' features.)

The Uber app operates in 60 countries around the world and allows anyone to track a taxi driver close to them, hire them, and receive an estimated quote for their journey. The app, valued at approximately £33bn and used by approximately one-million Londoners, is viewed by some as an attempt to casualise and weaken the licensed taxi trade. App users do not need to hail a black cab. Instead, they can simply use the app and a taxi often arrives within minutes with their journey pre-valuated.

The problem lies in the existing regulations around hiring either ‘black cabs’ (officially known as Hackney Carriages) or private taxis (sometimes referred to as mini-cabs). In London, only black-cabs are allowed to “ply for hire” which involves either being hired via a street hail or at a taxi rank.

Most of Uber’s registered drivers operate as private taxis, which are not allowed to ply for hire. Therefore, the issue is whether the app is permitting taxis other than black-cabs to ply for hire. Or, to put it another way, does the app allow users to ‘hail’ a private cab in the street by using their mobile phone.

The ‘Taxis Briefing Document - Plying for Hire by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’, asserts that hailing is the exclusive right of the licensed taxi and the method of hailing is irrelevant. They claim that if a vehicle is hailed in real time with the use of a device showing available vehicles on a map is tantamount to plying for hire. The issue raised is that such methods, along with the immediacy of a hiring must be addressed, so as to ensure taxi drivers’ rights are not infringed.

That dispute aside, the High Court case is to determine what constitutes a taximeter, a device installed in that calculates passenger fares based on a combination of distance travelled and waiting time. In London, these are restricted to black cabs only. TfL has raised the issue for the court to determine whether the Uber app’s calculation of fares constitutes the use of a taximeter and is therefore illegal.

Uber has hit back against these claims stating that, “it (Uber) is a fully licensed and regulated and abides by all private hire legislation. Uber’s model has been scrutinised not only by TfL, but by over 25 other regulators and found to be compliant.”

Uber has since launched a petition, and has so far attracted an estimated 120,000 names, to support its fight against the TfL proposals.

The Hearing is due to commence on Monday and is expected to conclude on Tuesday. If it is ruled that Uber are metering, they would need to make relevant alterations to their app however, the judgment would not affect the company's licence to operate.

Victoria is a solicitor in Stephensons regulatory department representing clients in relation to a number of regulatory investigations including environmental law, road transport and professional discipline.