24 Uber drivers appeal conviction under ‘out-of-date’ law, as taxis catch up to 20th century

A taxi is reflected in a window at the office of taxi-hailing service Uber Inc. in Hong Kong, August 12, 2015.   File photo: Tyrone Siu/Reuters
A taxi is reflected in a window at the office of taxi-hailing service Uber Inc. in Hong Kong, August 12, 2015. File photo: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Twenty-four Uber drivers who were fined for driving for the ride-hailing service appealed against their convictions on Monday, claiming the 30-year-old law under which they were convicted was out of step with the present day.

According to the South China Morning Post, the case is the first appeal to challenge the applicability of a law that has been at the center of a fierce campaign against the ride-hailing company by the entrenched taxi industry and their allies. News of the case, meanwhile, came as the makers of the taxi industry-backed eTaxi app struck a blow at Uber by announcing their taxis would begin accepting cashless payments — long Uber’s domain — via Octopus card.

The drivers were among the 28 people found guilty of driving passengers without a car hire permit in July, and were individually fined between HK$3,800 and HK$4,500 (US$485 and US$574).

Sing Tao reports that 27 of the 28 drivers had filed appeals, but two pulled out, and one passed away last month.

Derek Chan Ching-lung, the barrister representing the drivers, argued before the city’s High Court that the drivers were victims of a traffic law last updated in 1984, and that the nature of their arrangement with Uber “could not have been foreseen at the time of the enactment.”

Chan maintained that since Uber drivers don’t accept payment directly from consumers, but rather are paid through the company in accordance with their contract, they should be exempted from the clause of the Road Traffic Ordinance stating that no one shall drive a vehicle “for the carriage of passengers for hire or reward” unless the vehicle has been licensed as a bus, minibus or taxi.

Prosecutors, however, argued that the case had nothing to do with technology, and that Chan’s interpretation of the clause was tantamount to rewriting the law. They maintained that even if drivers are not directly paid by the passengers, the income they receive is compensation for providing the car-hire service, and they should therefore be regulated by the Road Traffic Ordinance.

In an amusing twist that may speak to a generational gap in attitudes towards Uber, one person revealed to have used Uber was the daughter of the judge presiding over the case, Justice Alex Lee Wan-tang. In the interest if avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest, the SCMP reported, Lee disclosed to the court that his daughter paid for an Uber ride using his credit card, but he had since told her to stop using the service.

Neither the prosecution nor the defense voiced any concerns of bias on Lee’s part.

The appeal is just the latest development in Uber’s extended, and bruising, entree into the Hong Kong market. Though the company was initially welcomed with open arms by the city, authorities quickly soured on the company as the city’s taxi industry — which holds an effective monopoly on point-to-point transport services — launched an all-out offensive on the service.

One of Uber’s chief advantages over its local competitors has been its convenience, with customers able to call a car, select a route, and pay with a tap of their phone, while cabs — when they’re willing to accept a fare — still require users to pay in cash (and at times even prove reluctant to take it).

Today, however, the industry announced a bold step forward into the recent past, with the creators of the industry’s would-be Uber-killer eTaxi saying that their roughly 4,000 traditional cabs will now accept payment via Octopus Card, Headline Daily reports.

The newspaper reports that Octopus Cards Ltd. will also exempt the 1 percent administration fee for all registered cabbies for one year.

The eTaxi app was feted last month following the abortive launch of another Uber service, Uber Flash, which would have allowed users to summon either an UberX or a traditional cab through the app. The launch got off to a rocky start, however, when the only cab company to agree to partner with Uber withdrew at the last minute following a rabid outcry from other taxi operators.

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