MANY cabbies suffered a "financially disastrous overnight catastrophe" as a result of the liberalisation of the taxi licensing regime in 2000, the High Court heard.
They should now be entitled to damages as a result of what was an unlawful and unreasonable move, it was claimed.
Drivers who bought licences from other licence holders for sums as high as €100,000 had their constitutional rights to property, equal treatment and to earn a livelihood breached when the value of those licences was wiped out overnight in November 2000, Michael Collins SC said.
Some drivers bought licences as late as August 2000 but, months later, licences could be acquired by any appropriately qualified person for about €5,000.
While there was some discussion of liberalisation before November 2000, various reports and consultants who addressed the issue recommended it should be implemented on a phased basis and drivers could not have expected it would happen overnight, Mr Collins said.
Counsel was opening actions by three taxi drivers - Alphonsus Muldoon, Vincent Malone and Thomas Kelly - which are regarded as test cases for actions by some 1,200 other drivers arising from liberalisation of the taxi licensing regime in 2000.
The case of Dublin-based Mr Muldoon, the first being opened, is against the Minister for Environment and Local Government, the State and Dublin City Council. The defendants deny liability.
Mr Muldoon (66) bought a licence from another driver for IR£80,000 in 1998, plus a IR3,000 licence fee. He claims the 2000 regulations deprived him of an anticipated substantial asset which he intended to use for pension purposes.
He paid for the licence with his IR£40,000 life savings and by remortgaging his home for the other IR£40,000. While he was later paid
€13,000 compensation under the Taxi Hardship Scheme which had a maximum payment of IR£15,000, that did not compensate him for the loss suffered, he claims.
As a result of the new licensing regime of 2000, he was unable to meet mortgage repayments over certain periods, his earning capacity and health were affected and he has been unable to provide for a pension with the effect he faces having to work indefinitely, Mr Muldoon also claims.
Today, Mr Collins argued the licensing regime in force between 1978 and 2000 was not in the interests of drivers or taxi users as it unlawfully allowed local authorities limit the number of licences issued via an impermissible delegation of Ministerial powers.
While there was no dispute the number of taxis that existed during this time was wholly inadequate to address demand, drivers had not set up the licensing system and just had to deal with it.
While they could benefit if they paid a large sum to operate in this restricted market, what they were buying was a licence expected to be a long-term benefit.
All the drivers did was play by the State-created "rules of the game" and their losses were a direct consequence of that unlawful regime, counsel argued.
The court heard no new licences were issued in Dublin over a ten year period from 1978 beyond the approved number of 1,800. During the 1990s, approval was given for some additional licences. Mr Muldoon claims, when he sought to enter the industry in 1994, he was advised he would have to buy a licence from an existing licence holder.
The State's failure to address issues concerning the secondary market arising as a result of the hackney industry compounded problems, it is claimed.
The "laudable aim" of the new regime from 2000 was to address the clear need for more taxis but the manner in which that was done was unlawful, unreasonable and disproportionate, Mr Collins argued.
The manner of liberalisation involved impermissible delegation of the taxi regulation powers of the Minister for Environment & Local Government under the Road Traffic Acts, he submitted. It was also contended there were breaches of competition law arising from how, and in what quantities, taxi licences were issued.
The case continues.