Driver's victory effectively legalises Uber in Victoria

A Melbourne Uber driver has won his court appeal, effectively giving the ride-booking service the green light to operate freely in Victoria.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

An Uber driver from Melbourne has won an appeal against a conviction for operating a commercial passenger vehicle without a licence.

The decision handed down by a Victorian County Court judge on Wednesday effectively legalises the ride-booking app in the state.

Nathan Brenner was found guilty last year by a magistrate of two counts of operating a commercial passenger vehicle without a licence, and one count of driving a commercial passenger vehicle without driver accreditation.

The decision effectively outlawed Uber in the state.

But Judge Geoffrey Chettle dismissed the charges and ordered the Taxi Services Commission pay Brenner's appeal costs.

Brenner appealed his convictions on the grounds the ride-booking app was not covered by the "antiquated" legislation used to charge him.

Brenner was originally fined AU$900 without conviction in December following a sting operation involving undercover taxi compliance officers. He was charged after an undercover officer used the Uber app to travel.

The AU$9 fare from that ride could not be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution against Brenner, the court heard. It was also discussed during the trial that the definitions in the legislation which apply to commercial passenger vehicles excluded Uber arrangements.

It also tendered case law from 1929 involving omnibuses and fares paid in shillings, and other documents related to the Transport (Compliance and Miscellaneous) Act 1983, as part of the appeal.

Opposition transport spokesman David Hodgett said the government has wasted taxpayers' money trying to fight Uber instead of regulating the service to provide industry certainty.

"This is not about taxis versus Uber but rather what ways we can get our city moving in the most efficient way," he said in a statement.

Victoria has been tight-lipped on its Uber policy, announcing back in September it was preparing to regulate the service amid concerns from the local taxi industry.

At the time, Premier Daniel Andrews said the state government was working on a regulatory regime that addresses passenger safety, driver and vehicle standards, and insurance issues.

"I'm concerned to make sure that we properly regulate the pre-booked-only trade," he said.

A day later, the Australian Capital Territory legalised Uber-like services, with Minister assisting the Chief Minister on Transport Reform Shane Rattenbury saying in September that the taxi industry reform was part of broader reform to public transport, with the belief it will give customers access to safe, flexible, and affordable ridesharing services, while also reducing costs for taxi drivers, owners, and passengers.

Following shortly from the ACT's lead, New South Wales gave ride-booking services the green light, with UberX drivers sharing rides legally on Sydney's streets since December 18.

As of July 1, 2016, Uber-like services will also be allowed to operate in South Australia, with Premier Jay Weatherill confirming in April that changes have been made to the state's taxi and chauffeur vehicle industry to invite healthy competition.

However, Uber launched itself into Adelaide earlier this month, offering passengers free rides after it allegedly threatened to abandon its expansion plans. A week prior, Uber said it was financially unviable to expand into Adelaide as it would cost too much and take too long for drivers to actually get on the road.

"It appears that South Australians would have to pay more than AU$700 in unnecessary fees and wait months before they could start sharing rides," Uber's Tom White said.

Weatherill said Uber had got its figures wrong and the threat from the company was merely a ploy to get the government to lower its regulatory standards, saying Uber was "just a company that wants to work over a government and have it reduce its standards before it comes in".

Queensland and the Northern Territory have both banned ride-booking services from operating in their respective states, with 51 Brisbane drivers racking up over AU$120,000 worth of fines during a long weekend earlier this month.

The Brisbane blitz came after the state government last month passed new legislation to crack down on Uber drivers, which included increased fines and more powers for traffic enforcement officers.

Under the new legislation, fines have jumped from AU$1,413 to AU$2,356 for drivers, while Uber itself could be fined up to AU$23,560. Uber has previously said that it will operate as normal, and will challenge the fines in court.

With AAP

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