Beware the court of public opinion!

Posted by Tim Williamson on
This is a sensible maxim for politicians but seems to be equally relevant to companies – particularly those that require a licence to be issued by a public body in order to operate!

UBER has today learned that Transport for London (TfL) has refused to renew its Private Hire Operators' licence. TfL will have been required to ask itself "can this applicant fulfil his role without posing any threat to the general safety of the public."  TfL decided that UBER cannot.  Even with largely negative press coverage that has dogged UBER in recent months, to be told that one is not able to operate without posing a threat to public safety must have come as quite a shock.  Who would want to hear their business operation described in those terms? 

TfL had to determine the ultimate issue about the granting or otherwise of a licence by asking itself a number of questions about the suitability of UBER as an applicant and would-be licence holder.  Football fans will be familiar with the 'fit and proper person' test in relation to club ownership – well the same test applies in taxi licensing too.   TfL had to consider whether UBER was a fit and proper person (meaning the Company Secretary, Directors etc) and to answer that question had to, in turn, consider its 'administrative rules' that any applicant will need to meet, namely in relation to:

  • Convictions
  • Business repute (note: this refers to whether directors etc. have ever been made bankrupt or disqualified as a Director rather than whether they enjoy a favourable reputation amongst members of the public)
  • Right of abode and to work
  • Previous applications
  • Radio circuit
  • Insurance
  • Health and safety
  • Accounts

When the facts and evidence (all of the above) have been factored into the mix, out comes a decision.  In this case, not a decision that UBER is prepared to accept.  The company has said it will appeal against the decision and will doubtless focus on the quality (as they would put it) of the application as a WHOLE.  It has 21 days to lodge an appeal to the Magistrates Court (most likely Westminster Magistrates Court in my experience) and if they lose there too then they have the right to a further appeal to the Crown Court.  As in most instances where an appeal is proposed, the Company will be permitted to continue 'trading' pending the appeal. 

Blake Morgan's road traffic and regulatory lawyers have represented Operators and Taxi Drivers in cases involving TfL and other Local Authorities over many years and appeals are not easy – they require careful preparation and a robust consideration of the weakness of any application as well as the positives.  One must always ask "what is the worst that could be said about this application and can we reassure the Tribunal that this is not actually a substantive problem in reality?" If you can't deal with that then you are going to struggle.  Applicants have to be careful to try and reassure tribunals.  Even in the face of the most dogged opposition, this can still be achieved.

Whether a 'reassurance' pathway can be found in the Magistrates Court in this case remains to be seen.


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Tim is a leading Criminal and Regulatory lawyer, who defends businesses and individuals under investigation by the police and regulatory bodies and when accused of criminal offences.

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