Last week a number of news outlets reported on a proposed dress code policy due to be adopted by Bath and North East Somerset Council’s licensing committee.
Reports suggested that a council official justified the proposed dress code “banning shorts” by saying: “This is intended to provide a standard condition where no member of the public travelling in a licensed vehicle is made to feel uncomfortable by a driver whose choice of shorts (or other clothing) may be inappropriate and make them feel uncomfortable…The dress code, whilst subjective in manner, is there to encourage drivers to convey a professional appearance, thereby improving the confidence of the public in choosing licensed vehicles as a preferred form of transportation.”
Can such a policy be justified legally?
Dress code policies are not uncommon in lots of taxi and private hire licensing policies around the country. Whilst dress code policies are a common occurrence, their enforcement is less common in formal terms.
Clearly having such a policy is no good if it is not enforced. A driver found to be acting otherwise in accordance with a dress code policy is likely to have their licence reviewed before a licensing committee with the option to either suspend or revoke their licence for the policy transgression.
It is worth bearing in mind that licensing policies are just that, policies are not the law. As such, there is discretion to deviate from policy where circumstances deem it appropriate to do so. Using the example of the drivers in Bath, extreme temperatures may be sufficient to argue in favour of a policy deviation.
A licensing committee will need to rely on section 61(1)( b) of the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976 which gives licensing authorities the power to suspend or revoke a driver’s licence for “…any other reasonable cause.”
This then begs the question whether such a drastic action, i.e. to deprive someone of their licence, is reasonable as per section 61 above. Strictly speaking, a driver’s licence can only be taken away if they are no longer deemed fit and proper. This reduces the question then to whether not complying with a dress code policy makes someone not a fit and proper person.
Taxi and private hire licensing law principally exists to protect the public from harm and to keep them safe. There may be instances where a dress code policy could be appropriate. Examples of this may be cases where driving a licensed car could be dangerous due to inappropriate footwear or where clothing may portray offensive slogans or imagery.
To my knowledge there is no ruling on whether the definition of “fit and proper” can extend to include a situation where a dress code policy is not being complied with. In my view it is arguable, in light of the legislation’s intention, that the definition of “fit and proper” should not be reduced to an argument over whether shorts are appropriate for a taxi driver to work in.
The right approach in the first instance is to legally challenge such a policy on the grounds of reasonableness, lawfulness and/or irrationality.
On appeal, the Magistrates’ Court will not have the discretion to overturn the policy per se. Notwithstanding, an argument can be advanced in an appeal situation arguing that the council should have exercised its discretion to deviate from their policy – assuming the case’s circumstances would have deemed this appropriate.