District Judge Dodd, sitting at St Albans Magistrates' Court, has dismissed the appeal of a private hire driver against a decision of Three Rivers District Council to refuse to renew his licence.
The Judge found that he had made "clearly inappropriate approaches" to teenage girls - even though he had never been convicted of, or even arrested for, any criminal offences.
The driver submitted an application to renew his private hire driver's licence in January 2019. He had held a licence with Three Rivers since 2011 and was also licensed by neighbouring Dacorum Borough Council.
During the renewal process, a routine enquiry of Hertfordshire Police revealed that a complaint had been made against the driver in November 2018 alleging that he had been parked outside a secondary school where he had spoken with a teenage girl and had asked for her sister's phone number. The police decided to take no further action on the allegation and the driver himself was not spoken to by police.
Two additional allegations of approaches to teenage girls in 2012 and 2013 were also revealed, though there little detail had been recorded.
Three Rivers were concerned that this behaviour resembled grooming and that the driver posed a potential safeguarding risk. The driver was invited to attend an interview with officers from both Three Rivers and Dacorum to discuss the allegations.
After the interview, Dacorum concluded that they did not have grounds for revoking the driver's licence and instead gave him a written warning. However, Three Rivers took a different view, deciding that there was sufficient evidence of a safeguarding risk to justify refusing to renew the driver's licence.
The driver appealed.
His principal complaint was that the Council had relied on uncorroborated and (in some cases) anonymous hearsay evidence – no more than "tittle tattle" – which he was unable to challenge through cross-examination. Additionally, he said, the allegations were vague and for the most part historic.
In response, the Council argued that:
- Hearsay evidence was admissible - and the more historic, anonymous allegations were eerily consistent with the most recent allegation, about which the court had heard detailed evidence from the girl's mother and the driver himself.
- The Council had been faced with a conflict of evidence. It was not the Council's – or the court's – task to definitively resolve that conflict. Instead, it was required to ask whether the driver was safe and suitable to continue to hold a licence. That is a process of risk assessment requiring a subjective judgment - quite different from the court's job on a criminal prosecution.
- It was unsurprising that, given what she knew about this driver, the Council's licensing manager concluded that she would not be comfortable allowing a loved one to get into the driver's vehicle alone with him. The DfT's draft statutory guidance required her not to give the benefit of the doubt to the driver in these circumstances.
District Judge Dodd accepted the Council's argument.
She acknowledged that the incident in November 2018 did not result in a charge or prosecution - but that it was sufficiently significant to cause concern. She rejected the driver's account and accepted the girl's mother's evidence, describing the incident as a "clearly inappropriate approach ... to a girl he did not know".
While the earlier incidents were quite old and vague – and she had heard no direct evidence about them – taken together with each other, and with the more recent incident, they revealed a "clear pattern". Public safety was the paramount consideration and therefore she was satisfied, on the balance of probability, that the driver was not fit and proper to hold a licence and thus dismissed his appeal.
The driver was also ordered to pay the Council's costs of the appeal.
Matt Lewin, a member of Cornerstone Barristers' Licensing Team, represented Three Rivers District Council. He has successfully upheld revocations and refusals for licensing authorities in many "non-conviction" cases such as this one.
He also recently presented a talk to the IOL Taxi Licensing Conference – No smoke without fire? – on how to use non-conviction information appropriately and lawful in decision-making. He is very happy to speak with licensing authorities who need advice on similar cases.