Mr Mudassar Ali was charged with two offences. The first that in the early hours of 21st January 2017, in Reading, he was plying for hire with a Ford Galaxy, registration number LR12 ORZ on Kings Road, Reading for which vehicle a licence to ply for hire from Reading Borough Council had not previously been obtained. This was contrary to section 45 of the Town Police Clauses Act 1847. The second offence is in identical terms as the first but concerns the early hours of 22nd January 2017.
Mr Ali was an Uber driver, licensed by Transport for London. On the nights in question he was in Reading, Berkshire waiting for a passenger.
The issue in this test case is whether the Uber “model” using an App should lead the court to conclude that Mr Ali was plying for hire on the two dates above.
Reading Borough Council argued that Mr Ali was in possession and control of the Ford Galaxy which was not a hackney carriage, he chose to travel to and wait in Kings Road, Reading at a time when, and in a place where, members of the public were likely to wish to be immediately conveyed in a vehicle.
At the relevant times on 21st and 22nd January 2017, Mr Ali was logged on and shown as available on the Partner-Rider App. His location and availability were displayed to users of the Rider App by an icon on a map. That display, Reading Council contends, constituted a solicitation.
Mr Ali responded by pointing out that if Reading’s analysis was correct any booking using an App would be plying for hire. He contended that the essence of the private hire contract was that the member of the public books the vehicle first and then meets the vehicle before the journey proceeds. That is not plying for hire. He pointed out the technological advances from a time when a job-master was used to book a carriage through telephone booking and in recent times App based booking services. All of which were and are lawful.
Senior District Judge (Chief Magistrate) Emma Arbuthnot – who also heard the Uber London appeal – said that the “burden of proving the case is on Reading Borough Council and the standard of proof is a high one. I have to be sure of the defendant’s guilt on each charge before I can convict him of plying for hire.”
She found that:
- Mr Ali’s vehicle did not have a distinctive appearance and a member of the public seeing the vehicle on Kings Road at that time of may have guessed that it was a mini-cab because it was a dark coloured car with darkened windows but there were no outward signs, for example, no company telephone numbers were displayed. The TfL roundels were not of such prominence that it could be said that there was something on the vehicle which cried out “I am for hire” in the way described in the Rose v Welbeck case, which I find, in any event, turned on its own facts.
- was not near a hackney carriage stand and if he had been approached by passengers from the street, I accept he would not have contacted Uber to make the booking for them. The facts concerning Mr Ali are very different to those set out in Milton Keynes Borough Council v Barry.
- vehicle could not be hailed nor did it wait at a stand. He did not drive around looking for passengers nor did he wait on the street, flashing his lights or hooting at members of the public.
- passengers or riders come via the Uber App. Mr Ali was in central Reading waiting to be contacted by Uber.
She said “Uber’s server tells the nearest driver about the request, he or she has 10 seconds in which to accept or reject the trip. If the driver accepts then Uber confirm the booking, records it (see tab 31 page 157) and the trip is allocated to him or her. The details of the passenger are then provided to the driver and the driver goes to the pick-up location to meet the rider. The rider cannot choose a specific driver or vehicle.”
The above left Ms Arbuthnot to conclude “The fact that Mr Ali’s vehicle had no distinctive markings, was not at a stand and was not available to pick up passengers on the street combined with the fact that the whole transaction was conducted via an App where the booking process starts, is recorded and the fare estimated, leads me to find that Mr Ali was not plying for hire.”