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Transport for London appeals over voice contact requirement for Uber

TfL says that sometimes there is no substitute for talking to a ‘real live person’.

TfL says the ability to speak to a real person at all times during journeys is an important safety requirement and is well supported – particularly by groups representing disabled passengers.

It is appealing against a decision by Mr Justice Mitting last year, quashing the telephone requirement on the basis that it was not proportionate.

The judge accepted the need for telephone access in urgent emergency situations, but said the requirement to make available a voice platform in non-emergency cases exceeded what was necessary.

At the Court of Appeal on Tuesday, Martin Chamberlain QC, for TfL, said he agreed with the view that “sometimes there is no substitute for talking to a real live person”.

Arguing that the judge got it wrong, he told Lady Justice Gloster, Lord Justice Patten and Lord Justice Floyd that it would be impractical to have a requirement confined to emergency situations.

It would carry risks of inappropriate use and would not achieve the customer level of protection which TfL sought.

It would forfeit the benefits of reassurance for passengers in non-emergency situations, increased confidence to travel for disabled and vulnerable passengers, and easier complaints access.

It would not achieve TfL’s objective of preventing unlawful discrimination, such as when a driver refused to pick up a passenger with an assistance dog, or allow third parties to check on the journey progress of children, relatives or those in their care.

Customer convenience benefits in relation to lost property that would not amount to an emergency would also be affected.

Mr Chamberlain said that providing a full voice contact service – by telephone or over the internet – would be less than 1p per trip and Uber had made clear it would pass all costs to its customers.

The hearing, which is contested by Uber London Limited and three individually licensed drivers, is expected to continue into Wednesday, with judgment reserved to a later date.

Arguing that the appeal should be dismissed, Tom de la Mare QC referred the court to intended changes to Uber’s customer contact handling systems and processes.

Thomas Elvidge, Uber’s general manager for the UK and Ireland, had provided evidence that, in the UK, it had been decided to introduce a “click-to-call” function in the app for passengers and drivers.

He said the function would take about six months to implement.

“We will need this time in order to put in place the technology, infrastructure and resources needed to do this in a way that is consistent with our target of a live voice response to safety-related issues within two minutes.”

This included hiring and training 150 support agents to manage the calls, and potentially setting up additional facilities.

The function would be available during a trip and at any other time.

The user would be connected instantly to an automated voice-based system which would ask the passenger to indicate the subject of the call so the issue could be handled appropriately.

Some non-urgent issues would be redirected to existing support channels.

Mr Elvidge said in his statement: “We will seek further input from TfL to ensure that our approach is targeted both at our understanding of users’ needs and TfL’s expectations.

“We also intend to establish – with TfL’s input – clear targets for response and resolution times to ensure that this measure is focused on achieving good outcomes for our users.

“Our current thinking is that, for safety-related cases, the next available representative should be available to speak to the caller within two minutes of the call subject being indicated as safety-related.”

The cost would not be passed on to customers.

At the end of the hearing, the court reserved its decision to a later date.

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