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Uber and plying for hire

In an important decision, the Chief Magistrate Dame Emma Arbuthnot has dismissed a prosecution of a driver using the Uber App, based on an allegation that the App was a form of plying for hire.

The prosecution was brought by Reading Borough Council against Mr Ali, a private hire driver licensed by Transport for London. He had been found waiting in a street in Reading town centre on two consecutive nights. He was not on a taxi rank or bus stand and was not actively touting. Rather, he was waiting for a booking through the Uber App.

According to the Council, the fact that one could see his approximate position on a map on the Uber App amounted to plying for hire. It argued that there was a market in Reading for Uber drivers which would not exist if they were not there. The market was created by the exhibition on the App of icons showing the location and availability of vehicles. The fact that an icon was shown at all was because Mr Ali had logged on to the App and indicated through Uber that he was available for hire.

Having extensively reviewed case law in the field, the Chief Magistrate rejected the case. Mr Ali was simply a private hire driver awaiting a booking through the App. The fact that a passenger could reach him through the App was simply a modern update of taking a private hire vehicle through a job-master. She said:

"I find the App follows from the job-master, then the telephone booking system and is the most up-to-date way of booking a mini-cab."

Trade associations had made similarly unsuccessful attempts to run this argument through prosecuting a London driver, judicially reviewing Transport for London and making representations in Uber's operating licence application and appeal in London. The prosecution was discontinued upon intervention by the DPP, the judicial review was withdrawn and the representations were considered irrelevant by TFL and the magistrates' court on appeal. The decision in Reading is therefore the first judicial decision on the topic.

A copy of the judgment can be read here.

Philip Kolvin QC acted for Mr Ali, instructed by James Thompson of Woods Whur.