28 Uber drivers become largest group convicted in Hong Kong, hit with fines of up to HK$4,500

Ride-hailing service remains illegal in the city and a number of drivers have been successfully prosecuted

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 5:10pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 July, 2018, 10:39pm

Twenty-eight Hong Kong Uber drivers were on Tuesday handed fines of between HK$3,800 and HK$4,500 (US$570) after being found guilty of driving passengers without a hire car permit.

The group is the largest in the city to be successfully prosecuted for offering ride-sharing services.

That came after the magistrate urged authorities to step up attention on the problem of personalised and point-to-point passenger services.

“Momentous technological breakthroughs never take account of prevailing public policies, but prevailing public policies must take account of momentous technological breakthroughs,” Magistrate Joseph To Ho-shing said in concluding his four-hour verdict.

“This court hopes that the relevant authorities … will soon remedy the position.”

On Tuesday, Kowloon City Court heard that the government’s Transport Department had never issued permits to any of the 28 Uber drivers and none had ever applied.

Their offence came to light following 22 police sting operations and six passenger complaints – involving a car accident, a wrong destination and inaccurate charges – between April and August last year.

Under Hong Kong law, driving 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 convictions.

The 28 defendants, aged between 22 and 60, had pleaded not guilty when charged. Some were unemployed or retired, while others declared occupations including construction worker, insurance agent, teacher, trading agent, advertising agent and shop owner.

None of them gave evidence or challenged the facts of the case, but instead mounted a defence through legal arguments put forth by their lawyer Derek Chan Ching-lung SC.

The complex legal debate prompted the magistrate to give a detailed analysis of the regulatory regime in a 131-page judgment read in court.

He found that the offence-creating section, amended in 1982, had gone beyond its legitimate aim “to provide a safe, efficient, reliable and environment-friendly transport system that meets the community’s … needs and that is capable of supporting sustainable development”.

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But to save the section from becoming unconstitutional, To restricted its interpretation to prevent drivers on employment contracts from being caught.

He then concluded that prosecutors had successfully proved the offence, showing all 28 drivers had undertaken their respective journeys for the sole purpose of reward, with the passenger making a payment – specifically for the journey – based on the distance travelled.

An Uber spokesman said: “We are disappointed with today’s court decision, which denies driver-partners’ access to flexible economic opportunities and serves as a setback to Hong Kong becoming a smart city.”

The Transport Department said it was “open-minded” about the use of ride-hailing technology, but that the services provided must comply with the law, to protect passengers.

It would issue a notice of intention to suspend the driving licences of the 28 drivers in line with the law, it added.

As of Tuesday, a total of 46 cars had been impounded by the department since 2015, and the vehicle licences suspended, due to convictions for illegal carriage of passengers, the department said.

A court last year concluded there was no significant difference between Uber drivers and pirate taxis locally known as pak pai, which the city’s Road Traffic Ordinance has sought to regulate since 1977.