Obtaining services via a mobile phone app is certainly convenient and cost effective, but there are times when it is essential for customers to be able to speak to a real person. The Court of Appeal made that point in upholding a requirement that such a facility must be provided by private hire vehicle operators.
The case concerned a requirement imposed by Transport for London (TfL) that operators must provide a service by which clients can make telephone contact with a real person at all times during their journeys, and at all times during operators’ hours of business, whether in an emergency or not.
After app-based operator Uber London Limited mounted a legal challenge, a judge acknowledged that the ability of customers to make actual human contact brought real public safety and consumer protection benefits. However, in quashing the requirement, he found that it was disproportionate and that a less restrictive measure – he suggested a hot line for use in emergencies only – could be employed.
In upholding TfL’s challenge to that ruling, however, the Court noted the difficulty in distinguishing emergency from non-emergency situations. The alternative favoured by the judge would provide fewer public benefits than the existing requirement and would, in reality, be no less intrusive or burdensome on operators. The cost to Uber of complying with the requirement would be less than 1p per trip and that would be passed on to customers. The imposition of the requirement fell within TfL’s proper margin of appreciation as a regulator and it could not be said to interfere with the right of Uber or other operators to establish themselves as companies in the UK.