Five Hong Kong Uber drivers lodge appeals following conviction for driving without permit and third-party insurance

Five were each fined HK$10,000, banned from driving for one year and had smartphones or iPads they used in committing the offences confiscated

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 March, 2017, 10:45am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 March, 2017, 2:22am

Five Uber drivers lodged appeals on Friday just hours after they were convicted of driving without a permit or third-party insurance.

This came as the government pledged further enforcement action following what it hoped was a deterrent ruling from Hong Kong’s first trial centred on the controversial car-hailing service.

The five men were each fined HK$10,000 and had the smartphones or iPads they used in committing the offences confiscated.

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They were also banned from driving for one year, although this was suspended pending the outcome of their appeals against both conviction and sentence.

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Kenneth She, Uber HK boss

Uber Hong Kong remained defiant, with company general manager Kenneth She Chun-chi vowing to fight on for legal status despite the ruling, which he said went against “the best interests of riders, drivers and the city”.

“Sharing a ride shouldn’t be a crime,” he said. “We will continue to stand by [these drivers] and provide assistance during this difficult time.”

In welcoming the ruling, the Transport and Housing Bureau said the government was open to new platforms as long as they were legal, as a spokesman explained that the lack of regulation was equivalent to encouraging illegal hire car services.

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Acting principal magistrate So Wai-tak returned the highly anticipated verdict after finding there was no significant difference between the act of the Uber drivers and illegal taxi drivers known as pak pai, which the Road Traffic Ordinance sought to regulate in 1977.

Four decades on, So said the legislative intent to ensure the safety of passengers remained clear despite technological advances that brought about an entirely different mode of car-hailing, which some members of the public might find convenient.

“Passengers entrust their lives to the drivers of the vehicles once on board,” he continued. “In the absence of any regulations to control private car hire service on the pain of criminal sanction, issues such as the mechanical state of the vehicle and insurance coverage cannot be properly addressed.”

The magistrate concluded that all five defendants – arrested in police decoy operations – drove vehicles predominantly used for commercial purposes to carry passengers in return for reward, even though none had obtained legal permits to do so.

He also found the drivers left passengers unprotected in case of accidents as it was “beyond argument that the insurance policy of the vehicles in question expressly excludes the coverage of commercial use”.

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West Kowloon Court heard in mitigation that the men were told by Uber that the company had third-party insurance cover, although the details remained unclear.

The five men, aged between 29 and 53, each denied one count of driving a vehicle for hire without a permit and one count of using a vehicle without third-party insurance on August 11 and 12, 2015.

They are Chan Tsz-lun, Sunny Leung Hoi-shun, Lau Kwan-wing, Chan Kin-fung and Luk Chun-pong.

The defence previously failed in a bid to mount a constitutional challenge in which they argued that the drivers’ fundamental right to freedom of occupation was infringed because local laws made it impossible for them to obtain permits.

A government source told the Post the authorities would welcome an application for permits from Uber, but had not received any.

Uber Hong Kong announced last month that it had secured third-party insurance coverage in line with legal requirements.

Under Hong Kong law, using a car for hire without a permit is a criminal offence punishable by a HK$5,000 fine and three months’ imprisonment on first conviction and HK$10,000 and six months’ imprisonment on subsequent conviction.

Local drivers are also required to take out insurance or face a HK$10,000 fine and 12 months’ imprisonment.

In a related case, two former Uber drivers were each slapped with a HK$7,000 fine and a one-year driving ban in January last year after pleading guilty to the same charges.

Additional reporting by Cannix Yau