Further legal clarification on rules surrounding wheelchair space priority on buses is expected when details of the FirstGroup/Paulley case judgement is published. The outcome of the hearing is not expected until the autumn when the Supreme Court will make a judgement on the case.
Doug Paulley, a wheelchair user, successfully sued FirstGroup for unlawful discrimination in the County Court following an incident in February 2012 when he tried to board a FirstGroup bus from Wetherby to Leeds. The wheelchair space was being used by a mother with a pushchair and a sleeping child. She refused the driver’s request to move or fold the pushchair and so the driver told Mr Paulley he could not board the bus. The County Court stated FirstGroup’s policy discriminated against Mr Paulley and put him at a substantial disadvantage. FirstGroup was asked to change its policy so other incidents did not happen. These changes would require a non-wheelchair user in a wheelchair space to move from it if a wheelchair user needed it. This decision was overturned on appeal. The Court of Appeal said this would be a step too far. The Court looked at whether the policy put Mr Paulley as an individual at a disadvantage rather than applying the wider test of whether it put disabled persons at a disadvantage, taking account of the potential effects on all disabled people. The Equality and Human Rights Commission took the case to the Supreme Court.
Commenting on the case, MD of FirstBus, Giles Fearnley, said, ‘The previous judgment of the Court of Appeal gave much needed clarification around the priority use of the wheelchair space on board buses, following two previous conflicting rulings. We hope that the judgment of the Supreme Court will maintain that clarity for our customers, drivers and the wider industry. We believe that our current policy, which is to ask other customers in the strongest polite terms to make way for a passenger in a wheelchair who needs the space, is the most feasible solution. We recognise how important it is that bus services are accessible for all customers – indeed we have been leading the industry in improving bus travel for customers with a disability. That good work will continue.’
The Equality and Human Rights Commission said at the Supreme Court that bus companies must ensure wheelchair users have priority in using wheelchair spaces and end ‘first come, first served’ policies.
Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, David Isaac, said, ‘This is not about pushchairs versus wheelchairs but confusing policies from bus companies that cause problems. Bus companies have a duty to allow wheelchair users to travel given how vital this is to disabled people being able to live independent lives.’
Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief Executive and Chief Legal Officer, Rebecca Hilsenrath, said, ‘We know the vast majority of people would move to another seat if a wheelchair user needed the space. We are saying that bus companies must uphold their responsibility and make it very clear to travellers that those spaces are intended for wheelchairs. Priority should mean priority and drivers should be able to have the discussion with passengers based on a clear formal policy. Public bus services are used by many people to get to work, go out, and get to local facilities. It can be hard enough for disabled people to use these services without extra barriers being in the way. It’s about doing the right thing and letting those that need the space use it.’