Court to rule on taxi drivers’ challenge to Uber’s London licence

The High Court is to rule on a legal challenge against Uber’s London operating licence by taxi drivers who claim the judge who granted it was “biased”.

The United Cabbies Group Ltd (UCG), which represents Hackney carriage drivers in the capital, says Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot’s decision to grant Uber a 15-month permit was “tainted by actual or apparent bias”.

The licence was granted on a “probationary” basis at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in June last year after Transport for London (TfL) refused to renew it amid safety concerns.

But the judge said in August she would not hear any further cases involving the ride-hailing app after a newspaper article alleged there were financial connections between her husband, Lord Arbuthnot, and Uber.

Westminster Magistrates’ Court, where Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot granted a 15-month 'probationary licence' (Nick Ansell/PA)
Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot granted a 15-month ‘probationary licence’ at Westminster Magistrates’ Court (Nick Ansell/PA)

At a hearing in London earlier this month, lawyers for UCG acknowledged the judge was unaware of any such links but said she should have “checked for any potential conflicts of interest” before making her decision on Uber’s licence.

They also argued the decision was not open to her because Uber did not meet the “fit and proper person” criteria necessary for holding a licence.

Robert Griffiths QC, for UCG, told Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett and Mr Justice Supperstone that it was “significant” the judge did not say she was “satisfied” the taxi firm met the criteria.

He added: “In our submission, what the learned judge has done is to grant a temporary licence to (Uber) on the basis that it may become a fit and proper person.”

Lawyers for Uber said the alleged connection between Lord Arbuthnot and Uber was “at best extremely tenuous” and the judge was unaware of it.

They also argued the judge applied the correct test and did make a finding the firm was fit and proper to hold the licence.

Philip Kolvin QC said: “The court will have noted that the issue of Uber’s fitness received the most exhaustive consideration both by its regulator, TfL and by the judge.

“The attack on the judge’s impartiality and decision-making by non-parties to the appeal, who also happen to be trade competitors of Uber, is without substance and should be rejected.”

Uber’s application for a five-year licence was rejected by TfL in September 2017.

TfL had a number of concerns with the firm, including failure to report criminal allegations to police and the use of technology to thwart regulators outside the UK.

Chief Magistrate Arbuthnot issued the shorter licence with stringent conditions after concluding the firm had made “rapid and very recent” changes.

In her ruling, she was critical of the firm, saying its failure to inform police of criminal allegations “lacked common sense” and that it had painted a “false picture” of its processes.

Following the article in the Observer newspaper in August, she assigned a licensing appeal by Uber she was due to hear in Brighton to another judge and said she would not sit in future cases involving the firm.

In a statement issued at the time, a spokesman for the judiciary said: “Chief Magistrate Arbuthnot did not know the Qatar Investment Authority for which her husband had acted as an adviser was a shareholder in Uber or had any links with Uber.

“Lord Arbuthnot was not aware that the Qatar Investment Authority was a shareholder in Uber or that it had any links to Uber.

“This is the first time that such a connection has been brought to the Chief Magistrate’s attention.”

The spokesman added: “It is essential that judges not only are, but are seen to be, absolutely impartial.”

Lord Burnett and Mr Justice Supperstone also heard submissions from TfL and the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, which previously made representations to Chief Magistrate Arbuthnot.

The judges will give their ruling in the case, brought against Westminster Magistrates’ Court, on Tuesday.

An Uber spokeswoman said: “We’ve made lasting changes to our business over the last year and a half.

“We’ve introduced new safety features in the app for riders and better protections for drivers.

“Since the court ruling in June we have launched emergency assistance so riders can connect directly with the emergency services through the app.

“This is one of a series of improvements we’re making for both passengers and drivers, and we continue to listen, learn and improve.”