Uber v Transport for London

The issue of Uber and Transport for London is about the law, the whole law, and nothing but the law.
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A little fact that I’ve learnt recently is when you have a legal case, e.g. as “Uber v Transport for London”, the “v” isn’t short for “versus”. It’s short for “against”. So, you’re supposed to read my fictional legal case name as “Uber against Transport for London”.

There appears to be some confusion around the whole “TFL revokes Uber’s license thing”. One part of the confusion seems to come from the fact that TFL’s job is a regulator, and any regulator’s job starts and ends with making sure that the entities within its purview are acting in a lawful fashion.

TFL didn’t revoke Uber’s licence because TFL was being biased or capricious – it revoked Uber’s license because it decided, when considering the evidence put before it, that Uber was acting in an unlawful manner.

TFL was set-up under the Greater London Authority Act 1999, and you can see TFL being defined in the legislation under s 154. With regards to Uber, the actions of a “private hire operator” are governed by (as least) Private Hire Vehicles (London) Act 1998, and The Private Hire Vehicles (London) (Operators' Licences) Regulations 2000 (a statutory instrument). (TFL a decent document on it's website that sets out how the legislation should be interpreted). ie Everything Uber has to do will be defined in here, and TFL (or any private hire operator) will grant or not grant a license based on this legislation. Any decision TFL makes will be guided by, at least, this legislation, alongside any other relevant judge-made law coming out of previous cases.

TFL’s statement sets out that they do not feel Uber’s are not “fit and proper to hold a private hire operator license”. Again, this isn’t a capricious and random act – this decision will be based on evidence. If you think about what happens next, Uber will be looking to take TFL to the appellate court to try and get this decision overturned. This means that Uber will be trying to say that TFL’s decision was in and of itself unlawful – i.e. that TFL didn’t follow their own obligations under the legislation set out above. Uber will have to show that TFL’s position, on the balance of probabilities, was wrong, and that Uber should be granted a licence.

Pracitcally, what will actually happen here is that Uber will be compelled to follow the law. TFL would not have made the wrong decision, and Uber will have to show they are able to act as “fit and proper” to hold a license.

At the time of writing, over 600,000 people have signed a petition calling for TFL to reverse the decision.

What this really means is that 600,000 people don’t understand the law, and don’t understand the role that a regulator plays. A government body has looked at how an entity under their purview has behaved and has decided that its behaviour is unlawful, and has taken steps to stop that unlawful behaviour. That seems perfectly reasonable to me. Whether TFL is right or not is now down to the courts.

Reading back over TFL’s statement, there are a number of obvious things that can be easily sorted out, as the first three bullet points TFL calls out at just an issue of shoring up their operational responsibilities. The Greyball issue has got to have made TFL worried. The language on the statement is interesting here: “it’s approach to explaining the use of Greyball in London”.

Greyball is a piece of software that Uber operated to stop law enforcement officials from actually accessing their service and seeing how things were working out first hand. I personally would not like to be a lawyer for Uber explaining Greyball to justices sitting in front of me in appellate court. Telling a court that in the past you used software designed to stop law enforcement officials from fully understanding how you were running your business – that’s not a good story to tell, and it’s not going to go down well.

Finally, there’s the issue about morality in how Uber is run. I’d like to think that most business people reading this would look at how Uber operates and not see it as a template for their own operations. I remember about a month ago I downloaded Lyft onto my phone because, although I use Uber, I always feel a bit dirty afterwards. (Lyft doesn’t operate in London, however.)

Uber is, in my opinion, a horrible company and I would never be proud to run a business that operates in the way that it does, but the issue of whether it’s allowed to operate in London, or anywhere in England, is an issue for the regulators and the courts. Just because it’s cheap, convenient, well-executed, and useful, doesn’t mean that it has a right to operate above the law.