The latest chapter in the epic legal struggle between London’s black cab drivers and operators of smartphone-based ride-hailing apps hinged on the interpretation of a Victorian statute that long pre-dates the invention of both the motorcar and the telephone, let alone the internet.
Iconic London cabs – known formally as hackney carriages – have been regulated by statute since the early 18th century. The Metropolitan Public Carriage Act 1869 made it a criminal offence for anyone except a licensed hackney carriage driver to ‘ply for hire’ on the capital’s streets. In practical terms, that means that only black cab drivers can pick up passengers without a pre-booking.
A trade association representing black cab drivers challenged Transport for London’s decision to license the proprietor of a ride-hailing app as a private hire vehicle (PHV) operator in London. It contended that the app enables and encourages PHV drivers to ply for hire in breach of the Act and that the proprietor was not, therefore, a fit and proper person to hold such a licence. Its arguments in that respect were, however, rejected by the High Court.
Dismissing the association’s appeal against that outcome, the Court of Appeal noted that plying for hire must mean more than simply driving around or parking in a public place in the hope of attracting a fare. Such a test would criminalise almost the entire PHV industry. To win the argument, the association was required to show that the app ‘exhibited’ vehicles for hire and ‘solicited’ customers.
The Court did not accept that the depiction of available vehicles as rectangular blobs on prospective customers’ smartphone screens amounts to exhibiting. The vehicles depicted on the screen are not visible or on view in any real sense. The submission that a PHV or its driver solicits business simply by driving towards or remaining in an area of high demand was similarly unpersuasive. If that were the case, it would lead to the startling conclusion that the PHV industry had been involved in inherent criminality for years, well before the invention of ride-hailing apps.
Although the app served to speed up the process of finding a ride, it operated in the same manner as a more traditional minicab firm that takes telephone bookings. The proprietor’s PHV drivers do not queue at taxi ranks – an exclusive privilege of black cabs – its vehicles do not advertise its services and passers-by are not solicited to step inside and reach an agreement with the driver on the spot.