The High Court recently decided a case of importance to private hire vehicle operators.
Milton Keynes Council prosecuted Skyline Taxis and its director, Mr Sokhi, for operating a vehicle for which a private hire licence was not in force. The case was prosecuted at a Magistrates’ Court, and concerned two companies sharing an online booking platform. A District Judge dismissed the prosecution. When the Council appealed, the High Court agreed that the District Judge had been correct to find in favour of the private hire firm.
Background of the Case
Private hire vehicles must be pre-booked by passengers. They cannot just be waved down in the street, like Hackney Carriages. For a private hire diver to operate, the following must be in place:
- An operator’s licence.
- A vehicle licence.
- A driver’s licence.
These must be granted by the same local authority. That same local authority can decide what records the operator must keep.
Most of the time, the operator that takes a booking will also provide a driver and vehicle. Quite often though, an operator does not have enough drivers available to cover jobs, and will sub-contract them to other companies.
Until October 2015, operators had to subcontract work to Operators who were licenced by the same Authority. However the Deregulation Act 2015 changed that. An operator can now sub-contract outside its area.
What Happened in this Case?
Skyline is a taxi and minicab company based in Milton Keynes and Northampton. They have operator licences from both local authorities. Skyline uses a voice-recognition based computer booking system, so that bookings can be made without speaking to anyone.
On 3 April 2015, a regular customer made a booking in this way. His car arrived late and, because he was annoyed, the customer complained to Milton Keynes Council. The Council launched an investigation.
The driver who collected the customer was not licenced by Milton Keynes Council, but by Northampton Council. Milton Keynes Council prosecuted Skyline and Mr. Sokhi for providing an unlicenced driver and vehicle. This was on the basis that the software used by Skyline to send the driver had not ‘subcontracted’ the work. The Council argued that there needed to be some human intervention.
At the trial, the District Judge decided that the Council had not proven that the booking had not been sub-contracted in the lawful way.
High Court Decision
The High Court heard that the software used by Skyline would allocate drivers in the following way:
> First, it would look for a driver in the area in which the booking was taken. In this case, Milton Keynes;
> If that was not possible, the software would allocate the job to the Skyline operation in the other area (here, Northampton).
> Either way, a driver would be sent.
All of this would happen without any human involvement.
The High Court decided that this system fell within the ‘subcontracting’ provisions, and was therefore a proper way to go about things. Indeed, the Judges commented that,
It is very hard to see how the public interest has been disadvantaged by the arrangement made, or by its operation.
What Does This All Mean for Private Hire Vehicle Companies?
Pressure upon private hire companies is growing. They operate in an increasingly competitive market. They must find innovative (and cheaper) ways to operate and to compete with the likes of Uber. This judgment will give some comfort to those companies that efficient computer systems will not fall foul of the regulations.