Uber revs its engine as London licence battle reaches Westminster Mags

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By Katie King on

App’s lawyers working harder than Santa’s elves

Image credit: Instagram (@fifcyk)

‘Tis the season to be jolly — but not for Uber’s legal team. Its rollercoaster year of legal action has hit another trough this week, the taxi-hailing app appearing today before Westminster Magistrates’ Court in its Transport for London (TfL) licence battle.

TfL stripped Uber of its licence at the end of September because of the company’s apparent “lack of corporate responsibility”. London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a former human rights lawyer, said at the time that “providing an innovative service is not an excuse for it being unsafe”. The case is currently at the preliminary stages, and is likely to be heard in full in late April.

Uber operates in 450 cities but isn’t giving up on London, filing appeal papers with the Westminster court just hours before the legal deadline. A spokesperson for the app at the time told Legal Cheek “we are determined to make things right”.

But it seems some just aren’t interested in kissing and making up. More than 35,000 people have signed a thank you card addressed to TfL, praising it for “standing up to Uber”. It continues:

“Many drivers are working punishingly long hours for less than the UK national minimum wage in order to try and make ends meet. Drivers working excessive hours is bad for drivers, bad for passengers, and bad for other road users too.”

Whatever your stance on the business, it’s clearly been a rocky year for Uber and its legal team. Alongside its battle to offer services in the capital, Uber continues to argue over the employment law status of its 40,000 or so UK drivers. The app, now a client of Hogan Lovells but represented by DLA Piper in this case, has long argued its drivers are self-employed contractors, meaning they’re rightly not entitled to minimum wage and protection from working excessive hours.

However, last month the Employment Appeal Tribunal ruled Uber’s drivers are workers.

It’s anticipated the case will be appealed to the Court of Appeal, or leapfrogged to the Supreme Court instead. The latter option may see the case joined to another gig economy appeal the bench has already agreed to hear, this relating to a plumbing and maintenance company called Pimlico Plumbers which insists the case’s respondent, Gary Smith, is an independent contractor, not a worker or an employee.

If a potential Supreme Court stint wasn’t enough to keep Uber and its legal team busy, it’s also expecting a critical decision from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) five days before Christmas. The European Union’s top court will decide whether Uber is a transport service or a technology company for the purposes of local taxi laws. Advocate General Szpunar in May advised the court to find against the California-headquartered app, stating the service the business offers constitutes a transport service for the purpose of EU law. The ECJ tends to follow the advice of its Advocates General.

Legal questions aside, the ethics underpinning the popular app have also been called into question more than once since its 2012 descent on UK shores.

The latest comments from across Legal Cheek

For one, the app was slammed for being too slow to turn off its surcharge feature — which activates automatically when demand exceeds the number of cars available — just after the London Bridge terror attack. In a similar vein, just today a local newspaper said Uber “should be ashamed” after it reportedly tried to charge one passenger £149 to travel 35 minutes in Birmingham, from Harborne to Solihull, in the snow. A current Uber fare estimate shows this journey should cost about £20, the Birmingham Mail reporting the customer “eventually used a local minicab firm which charged £30 for the same journey”.

With all this rumbling on, it seems the last thing Uber needs is to take on TfL. It’s a legal battle that’s set to take up a lot of time too: Khan has said he anticipates the squabble could “go on for a number of years”. Perhaps it’ll be good practice for a company that just last week had its licence in Sheffield suspended, too (every cloud).

But for all its controversies and criticisms, there really is just something about Uber that keeps its 50 million riders, 3.5 million of those in the UK capital, coming back. Its price point, ease and features (fare split, fare estimate, etc) must surely all be factors. Indeed, the prospect of living without it in London — a city characterised by unreliable public transport, extortionate cab rates and a housing market that prices many into the suburbs — is to some very unattractive. And it’s students and other young people likely to be most notably affected if Uber loses its TfL appeal. American research shows 37% of the app’s users are 16-24, while just 6% are 55-64.

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