Two aspects of Government seem to be perpetually at loggerheads - the desire to remove the red tape and bureaucracy that all those in the licensed trade know so well, and the constant efforts to make sure our laws cover every possible danger and protect the vulnerable.
A good example of this is licensees providing a courtesy bus service to encourage revellers to leave their cars at home or the pub. Like many good ideas, this one appears to have fallen foul of the law, to judge from some High Court decisions I have been looking at.
These outcomes seem to confirm the principle that courtesy coaches are public service vehicles which carry passengers "for hire or reward", in spite of the fact that no payment is made and the service is entirely free.
The courts reached this rather curious decision via a London traffic examiner, who prosecuted a hotel group some years ago when he found that two of their coaches were being driven by members of the hotel's staff. The employees had no public service vehicle driver's licence; nor did the hotel group have a public service vehicle operator's licence.
The reason for this omission was that the hotel proprietors thought that because the vehicles were for private use, rather than being used for hire or reward, they did not need a PSV licence as defined in the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981.
Clearly, the magistrates thought the same, because they dismissed the prosecution against the hotel. It transpired that the vehicles were operated at the sole discretion of the hotel manager for a variety of purposes, including collection of customers on arrival or departure and driving them to places of entertainment during their stay.
Any person using the hotel facilities, whether paying for them or not, was entitled to use the coach if it was available. The concession did not merely apply to residents, but also to persons taking meals and to friends of those at the hotel. But no-one was given the "right" to travel and none of the passengers was ever asked to pay for the ride. The coach did not offer any form of regular service, such as that which would be provided by a bus company.
The appeal Court disagreed with the magistrates. The judge went back to a 1972 case, which established what became known as the "business test": if there was a systematic carrying of passengers for reward which
went beyond the bounds of "mere social kindness", the operator could be said to be caught by the Act.
The question which had to be asked was whether the running of the coaches by the hotel constituted a business activity.
The judge then referred to another case to show that in deciding whether the carriage of passengers was for hire or reward, the prosecution did not need to prove a legally-binding contract. He felt that it was sufficient to show that the coaches were run as part of the overall services of the hotel, for which people paid money. In the payment for accommodation or a meal was included the implicit hire of the coach service, whether or not the individual guest in question made use of it.
So the judge upheld the appeal of the traffic examiner, which means that now in law all hotels and other licensed premises which run any form of courtesy bus service will need not only an operator's licence but will also be expected to ensure than anyone who drives the vehicles has already obtained a PSV driving licence as well.
Now that local authorities are in charge of licensing, it may well be that the same council department also deals with taxis and private hire vehicles, so they will probably know the law on this pretty well.
It would pay to check that offering such a service does not land you in hot water with the authority.