Is a tricycle rickshaw - a trishaw - a stagecoach? It is the stuff of Cambridge law finals, and so it was fitting that the Courts have recently been troubled by a bizarre dispute about a plan for environmentally friendly transport for tourists in that City's choked streets.
For most people, rickshaws are of Asia, and stagecoaches belong on the glossier Christmas cards. They are not the stuff of the English courts of the Nineties.
Simon Lane, a Cambridge graduate and entrepreneur, drove "trishaws" in San Francisco, and saw them as an opportunity for tourists to get around Cambridge. He and the Cambridge City Council, which turned out to be his opponent in litigation, set out with the best of intentions. The service featured on the front cover of a Council-sponsored city guide.
The service had to be licensed, as the vehicles were to "ply for hire". The Department of Transport advised dusting off an 1889 Act of Parliament, which was designed to provide a similar scheme of regulation as had existed since 1847 for hackney carriages (now known as taxis) to omnibuses. Omnibuses then were horse drawn vehicles which Hansard records as "wandering at their own sweet pleasure" and causing a "very serious obstruction and annoyance to the inhabitants".
Omnibuses had escaped regulation as taxis because they had the basic characteristic of a stagecoach, which was to carry passengers at separate fares. There was a special exemption in the taxi legislation for stagecoaches. The passenger hired a seat and went where the vehicle was going. This matched Mr Lane's idea for a trishaw service. By contrast, you hire a taxi and tell it where to go.
In 1976 councils were given tough powers to regulate taxi and minicab drivers. The Cambridge City Council felt it had to apply them to Mr Lane. But the rules were so tough that Mr Lane found it impossible to recruit drivers. Students and others wanting seasonal work were not prepared to undergo lengthy and expensive tests that would be expected of long-term taxi drivers. The law even required a full driver's licence and motor insurance! Mr Lane was particularly vexed that double decker tour bus drivers could work with far less bureaucracy, and that the Council demanded knowledge of obscure suburban routes.
The courts acted in an exemplary way, recognising the effects on Mr Lane's business. Mr Justice Richards in the High Court heard the case within weeks of it being launched, and the Court of Appeal within weeks of the first decision.
The Court of Appeal overturned the High Court's ruling that the 1976 rules applied to the 1889 omnibus legislation. The nature of omnibuses dictated otherwise. Mr Lane felt vindicated. But then Vice Chancellor Sir Richard Scott (himself a renowned bicycle fan) delivered the fatal blow to trishaws: he said they were in law taxis. They might work at separate fares, but he and his colleagues on the bench could not see how they were stagecoaches. The Council therefore had power to regulate Mr Lane as if he were a taxi. Only stagecoaches were exempt from the 1976 rules.
The ruling means that trishaws are regulated both as omnibuses and as taxis. These innocent vehicles are therefore the most regulated form of road transport.
Is that the end for them? We think not. Christmas cards notwithstanding, there are plenty of pointers that a "stagecoach" means more than the traditional idea of a coach-and-four. However, it will be up to the House of Lords to give trishaws that lifeline.