After a night out celebrating her 30th birthday in Leeds city centre, Ellie Dolby, 33, did what so many young women do and called an Uber cab.
Seen as a safe option by many, the appeal is that they’re quick to arrive and reassuringly easy to track with the app’s GPS technology — the driver’s name and photograph are even displayed on your mobile phone screen before the cab arrives.
The reality was terrifyingly different. Ellie was sexually assaulted by the driver in a horrific attack in December 2015, which has left her deeply traumatised.
Yet worse was to come. Despite this attack being reported to Uber and the police, the driver remained free to keep working — and attacked another woman just a week later.
It’s a deeply concerning situation that should raise alarm bells for any woman who chooses to travel by Uber — even more so because no criminal charges have ever been brought against the driver, Naveed Iqbal, 41.
Indeed, an out-of-court settlement from Uber last week, amounting to a ‘five-figure sum’, is the sole recognition of their terrible ordeal that Ellie, and the second victim, Rosie Winston, now 22, have received.
As Ellie says of her initial report of the attack: ‘Uber made all the right noises and convinced me it was taking it seriously. But it wasn’t backed up by action because days later he was in a position to attack another woman. What happened to Rosie could, and should, have been prevented.’
West Yorkshire police investigated, but no charges were brought because the cabbie who was named on the app when the women booked their taxis happened to be out of the country at the time.
However, an inquiry by taxi licensing authority Leeds City Council, which had been alerted to the allegations, concluded Naveed Iqbal had used his brother’s Uber log-in while he was in Pakistan, and had picked up Ellie in the early hours of December 6 and Rosie on December 13. There is no suggestion that his brother knew about his actions.
Naveed Iqbal finally lost his private hire licence in November 2017, at Leeds crown court, after Judge Simon Batiste ruled that ‘on the balance of probabilities’ he had carried out the attacks.
The judge said: ‘We are satisfied that he is not a fit and proper person to hold a licence. He’s extremely fortunate that criminal charges have not been brought against him.’
As he has no criminal record for these assaults, Mr Iqbal is, of course, free to do as he pleases, other than drive taxis.
Mr Iqbal shared the people carrier with his brother, working at night while his sibling did the day shift.
He denied assaulting the two women and using his sibling’s log-in, which is not permitted by Uber. He blamed a ‘technical fault’ on the phone or app.
However, lawyers specialising in abuse cases for legal firm Irwin Mitchell, who represented both victims, argued that Uber was liable for what had happened to them because it had a ‘duty of care to protect passengers’, as its drivers are employees.
After initially contesting the claims, the taxi firm agreed to the landmark out-of-court settlement.
Emma Crowther, who headed the legal team, said afterwards: ‘Both women are still deeply affected by what happened to them.
‘While nothing can ever make up for what has happened, we are pleased to have secured these settlements which we believe to be the first of their kind in the UK against Uber. We now hope that the specialist support the women require will help them try to move forward with their lives.’
The impact on both women cannot be underestimated.
On the night in question, Ellie was travelling home alone, and sat in the front of the taxi as always, because she gets travel sickness.
Having had several celebratory cocktails, and as a sufferer of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), Ellie fell asleep minutes into the 15-minute journey — only to wake with a start, feeling a hand on her right breast.
‘Out of the corner of my right eye, I saw his left hand go back to the steering wheel, and said: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ she recalls. ‘He said: ‘You were dreaming, love.’
‘I was sure I wasn’t dreaming, so tried really hard to stay awake to be on my guard, but I’d had a busy night and, with CFS, the need to sleep is impossible to fight.’
Four minutes from home, Ellie woke again to the sensation of a hand on her right breast. ‘This time he made no attempt to remove it, so I shouted: ‘What are you doing, you dirty b*****d? Get off!’
‘I had to push him away. He said: ‘What, love? I’m a man, I need sex.’ Horrified at the thought of what he might do next, I told him: ‘Well, you’re not getting it from me!’
With her heart pounding, Ellie jumped out and ran the three-minute journey home, convinced he would try to follow and grab her. Once inside, she bolted her door.
Two old university friends, who had bowed out of the celebrations earlier in the evening, were staying over. When Ellie ran in, she shouted angrily at one of them, recounting what the driver had done to her before breaking down in tears.
The following day, she made reports to both Uber and the police, fully expecting her assailant to be suspended from work and charged with sexual assault.
‘I’m haunted by the thought that if I hadn’t instinctively fought back, he could have grabbed me by the throat and raped me,’ says Ellie.
‘I was so relieved to have escaped, but that didn’t stop him haunting my every waking moment for a very long time afterwards.’ So how on earth, despite being reported to the authorities by Ellie, did Iqbal escape detection, allowing him to commit the same crime against Rosie?
When West Yorkshire police investigated Ellie’s report, no charges were brought — because it wasn’t Naveed Iqbal’s name on the cab-booking log. Police remain insistent that this fact means no case could be proven beyond all reasonable doubt.
The spokesman for West Yorkshire police said that the force received two separate reports of women having been sexually assaulted by a taxi driver in Leeds on December 6 and December 13, 2015.
‘Investigations were conducted into both reports and a man was interviewed after voluntarily attending. There were evidential difficulties, some in relation to the identity of the suspect, and both cases had to be finalised on that basis,’ the spokesman added.
Despite being victims of a serious crime, the women claim they were not kept in the loop by police, with calls for updates going unanswered until, around six months later, they were told there would be no criminal charges brought against their attacker.
Rosie had been out at the theatre with friends on December 13, then had gone for a few drinks with them. When the girls finally said their goodbyes, it was 1.30am.
Not far from her home the driver parked up in a dark street. He forced his right hand up her shirt, touching her right breast. His genitals were on display, as he first tried to kiss her, and then force her to engage in a sex act.
‘I was frozen with fear, unable to move or speak,’ says Rosie, who remains so traumatised that tears constantly brim in her eyes as she speaks. ‘It was like I was in the middle of a nightmare.
‘I was too terrified to scream because I didn’t know what he might subject me to next. He asked if I had a boyfriend, what I’d drunk, then the questions became more sexual. I can’t repeat them, they were personal, horrible.’ Terrified, Rosie blacked out.
The Volkswagen Sharan was parked in a poorly lit street a few minutes from her family home in Leeds, the driver having chillingly cancelled the journey on his own Uber booking software on his phone en route, so even the cab company’s control centre was no longer aware he had Rosie in his cab.
She has no recollection of getting out of the taxi and into her home. In fact, her next memory is of waking up in her bed the following day.
When a notification appeared on Rosie’s phone asking her to rate her Uber trip, a chill ran down her spine and the knowledge that something terrible had happened began to come back to her.
The psychology graduate reported the assault to Uber and the police that afternoon. But neither she nor Ellie were told if he had been suspended from his job.
Months later, they learnt there would be no criminal prosecution, as either investigating police officers, or the Crown Prosecution Service, believed discrepancies about who was driving meant the case ‘would not stand up in court’.
Rosie, who sat in the front of the taxi after the back door failed to open — perhaps, she now thinks, having been intentionally locked by the driver — has suffered crippling panic attacks, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
Too anxious to attend her university lectures, let alone socialise with friends, in the months that followed Rosie came close to dropping out of her course.
On the rare occasions she did go out, major panic attacks were brought on by any taxi ride — something she has avoided at all costs when alone.
Having had only one serious boyfriend before the assault, Rosie has struggled to trust anyone enough to form a relationship since.
‘That driver has robbed me of so many experiences most people take for granted at my age,’ says Rosie.
‘Although it was a huge struggle, I continued with my degree, determined he wouldn’t ruin that for me, too.
‘I try not to think about him because, if I do, I get upset and start to feel disgusting, dirty, again. I live in fear of encountering him. I torment myself with the thought of looking up one day and seeing his face. I can’t put into words the terror I would feel.’
Ellie, too, was left deeply scarred. The knowledge that her attacker knew exactly where she lived — as passengers must include their destination when they request a ride with Uber — meant Ellie lived in such fear of him breaking in that she would barricade herself in her bedroom whenever she was home. She became so frightened she only left the house for work.
‘It was winter, so it was always dark at either end of my working day, and I would literally shake going in and out of my house in case he was lying in wait, ready to grab me, knowing I’d reported him to the police and thinking he had nothing left to lose,’ says Ellie.
‘I became, and still am, hypervigilant — always checking my outside doors were locked and wedging a desk behind my bedroom door so no one could get in. Still I would wake, drenched in sweat, from nightmares.
‘Any time I saw a man who even vaguely resembled him I’d get palpitations. What he did destroyed my life as I’d known it. Even talking about what happened, I feel my skin crawl where he touched me.’
By mid-January, Ellie had become so anxious and depressed that her GP gave her a two-week sick note and prescribed medication and counselling.
Six months later, her nerves in tatters, Ellie moved to a shared house in a neighbouring town. Only then, at an address he did not know, did she begin to relax a bit.
However, it was a major blow when she learnt that, as the man supposedly driving the taxi that night had, in fact, been abroad, there would be no criminal charges brought.
Both women instead gave video evidence at a licensing hearing in 2017 in a desperate attempt to spare other women from the same fate. It was here that Ellie became aware Mr Iqbal had assaulted another woman days after her own assault
‘I’m older, of course, but when I saw her I was struck by how much she looked like me,’ says Ellie.
‘I was so angry that he’d been allowed to carry on working, no doubt emboldened by having got away with what he did to me so he also escalated his behaviour.’
So when Ellie was asked if she would like to make a claim against Uber through the civil courts, she, like Rosie, decided to ‘hit the company where it hurts: in its pockets’. The pair went on to work with lawyers at Irwin Mitchell.
She feels frustrated that what her attacker put her through has left her, to this day, questioning what she wears and whether she is ever safe alone.
‘My top wasn’t particularly low cut, but I’ve asked myself: ‘If I had been dressed more conservatively would he have done it?’,’ says Ellie. ‘I’ve also felt cross with myself for falling asleep.
‘But I know that this is all victim blaming. Even if I’d been naked and comatose, he still didn’t have the right to touch me like that without my consent.
‘Taxi firms have a duty to vet for drivers who can be trusted to pick up people, many of whom will have had a few drinks, and not take advantage of any vulnerability.’
Ellie, who eight months ago began dating ‘an amazing and supportive man’, plans to use some of the money awarded to pay for private therapy to help her deal with the ongoing anxiety issues she faces as a result of her ordeal.
Meanwhile, Rosie postponed taking her masters in psychology for a year so she could concentrate on overcoming her ordeal, with the help of counselling including cognitive behavioural therapy. She will start her masters in October.
Having passed her driving test a couple of years ago, she has used some of the money she received in the settlement to buy a car, so that she need never find herself alone in a taxi again.
In a statement issued after the settlement was agreed, an Uber spokesman said: ‘There is no place for this kind of behaviour in the Uber community. We take all reports very seriously and investigate thoroughly.
‘We typically waitlist drivers during investigations and, if the allegations prove true, an individual would likely face permanent deactivation.’
This is cold comfort for Rosie and Ellie, whose ordeals are certain to leave women everywhere even more wary when they find themselves alone in a cab at night.
Both women’s names have been changed.