Nathan Brenner, a ‘driver-partner’ with the disruptive ride-sharing company Uber, has won a landmark case that effectively legalises the service in Victoria.
Brenner was fined $900 last year by the Victorian Taxi Services Commission for “operating without accreditation”. A hearing with the Melbourne Magistrates Court saw Brenner ordered to pay the fine and costs, but this week’s retrial has seen the County Court of Victoria overturn the original ruling in Brenner’s favour.
Matthew Denman, general manager for Uber in Victoria, told CarAdvice today the company is “delighted” with the result.
“It’s good that Nathan Brennan’s case, the appeal, has been won. The case we’ve made for some time is that the regulations that currently exist in this space are pretty antiquated and don’t make room for ride-sharing, so it’s good to see that the County Court has agreed with that,” Denman said.
“However, this is a matter for the government. We’ve been calling on the government to introduce sensible safety-based ride-sharing regulations for two years now. They received recommendations from a ministerial forum in the middle of last year, and as yet we haven’t seen any movement on that.”
“Our message is that there’s no more time for excuses,” he added.
The Victorian Taxi Services Commission (TSC), the state government’s regulator for taxi and hire vehicle services, has expressed disappointment in the ruling.
“The Taxi Services Commission is disappointed in the County Court’s decision today to find Nathan Brenner not guilty of operating a commercial passenger vehicle illegally,” said the Commission’s CEO, Aaron de Rozario.
“A strong case had been mounted by the TSC, however, the appeal was won on an obscure technical argument.”
That technical argument was based on section 159 of the Transport (Compliance and Miscellaneous) Act 1983. The verdict report reads:
“Judge Chettle found that section 159 of the Act must be given meaning and therefore is to be interpreted as being a defence to any prosecution of a driver or owner of a commercial passenger vehicle, in circumstances where the reward received for the carriage of the passengers was not separate and distinct for each passenger. His Honour arrived at this decision having regard to principles of statutory interpretation that require that all words and phrases in an act must be given meaning and effect.
“It follows that the section 159 defence can be argued by UberX who are carrying two or more passengers, and may also still be arguable even where an UberX driver carries only one passenger.”
The TSC confirmed that it is considering its options, which may include an appeal. It will also work with the state’s Department of Economic Development to assess the impacts of the court’s ruling on the industry’s future.
In a lengthy report on the case’s outcome, peak industry body the Victorian Taxi Association (VTA) said that the relevant clause (section 159) was “[clearly] not intended to offer a loophole for providers of illegal services to avoid prosecution and enforcement”.
The VTA held back little: “You might as well throw the taxi and hire car bill out the window. This outcome fundamentally undermines the integrity of the framework of rules and laws regulating the commercial passenger vehicle industry in Victoria,” the Association said in a statement today.
“The Victorian Taxi Association will continue to require accreditation for all of its drivers and operators, despite the ongoing refusal of some that we continue to be expected to compete with [those] who actively undermine the rules in place to protect passengers.”
Victoria’s Andrews Labor Government has been slow to reach a decision on legalising the UberX service in Victoria.
Late last year, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said that the UberX service represents a complicated situation that must be fully considered.
“This is new, it is complex in some areas and it needs to be done properly,” he said in November.
This week, Victorian Transport Minister Jacinta Allan echoed Andrews’ comments, while offering no word on any impending decision.
“It highlights the complexity of this issue, which we continue to give the detailed consideration it needs in the interest of Victorian passengers,” Allan said in a statement.
According to Matthew Denman, Victoria’s slow progress on a decision has been “disappointing”.
“I can’t speak to whatever conversations are going on within government, but the point that we would make is that it’s important that they get on with it and we introduce some sensible regulations.”
“What’s really important to understand is that it’s not just about regulation. When you regulate ride-sharing, you have to understand that it’s a distinctly different service from any other point-to-point transport option. The reason it works is because there is no single type of UberX driver. Some of them are full-time, but well over half of them are very much part-time – some of them only do 10 hours ‘every other week’. We have teachers who only work on school holidays.
“This system only works because of the flexibility it offers, but that flexibility requires very low barriers to entry. So it’s really important that the message we give to governments is that this platform gives people the opportunity to earn supplemental income, and for unemployed Australians to make ends meet between jobs.
“The combination of all those things, and our technology, means that what the public wants – a safe ride – can be achieved at minimal cost and time,” Denman said.
The UberX service has so far been made legal in the ACT, New South Wales, Western Australia and, as of March this year, South Australia. Queensland and the Northern Territory continue to investigate, and Tasmania is understood to be planning for legalising the service.