Paulley vs First judgement

The Supreme Court has published its judgement in the case of First Group Plc vs Paulley, a wheelchair user heard on appeal from the Court of Appeal. In a statement accompanying its judgement, the Supreme Court stated: ‘The issue in this appeal is the reasonable adjustments which a bus company is required to make to accommodate disabled wheelchair users. The appellant, a permanent wheelchair user, attempted to board a bus operated by FirstGroup Plc. A sign on the bus asked passengers occupying the wheelchair space to “please give up this space if needed for a wheelchair user”. On the day in question, the designated wheelchair space was occupied by a woman with a baby in a pushchair. Upon being asked by the bus driver to move, pursuant to company policy, she refused saying that the buggy would not fold. The driver took no further action and the appellant was unable to board the bus, which significantly delayed his travel plans. He sued the respondent for unlawful discrimination.’

‘The Supreme Court unanimously allows Mr Paulley’s appeal, albeit only to a limited extent. Lord Neuberger gives the lead judgment (with which Lord Reed agrees) allowing the appeal but only to the extent that FirstGroup’s policy requiring a driver to simply request a non-wheelchair user to vacate the space without taking any further steps was unjustified. Where a driver who has made such a request concludes that a refusal is unreasonable, he or she should consider some further step to pressurise the non-wheelchair user to vacate the space, depending on the circumstances.’


The case has generated reaction across the industry and beyond. For First Bus, MD, Giles Fearnley, said, ‘We welcome today’s decision from the Supreme Court. It has ruled that bus drivers are not required to remove customers from vehicles, which was a key issue for us. This provides welcome clarity for bus operators, our drivers and our customers. This was clearly a difficult case for the Supreme Court with six different judgments, and we look forward to receiving further clarity around the decision when the Court publishes its Order. In response, we will implement any necessary changes. We recognise how important it is that bus services are accessible for all customers and we lead the industry in improving bus travel for customers with all disabilities. We are therefore also pleased that the Supreme Court found that we did not discriminate against Mr Paulley.’

CPT’s CEO, Simon Posner, said, ‘We welcome this decision and the clarification it provides over the priority for access to wheelchair spaces on our buses. The ruling confirms that our drivers are not legally required to remove (from the vehicle) non-wheelchair passengers occupying the designated wheelchair space. This is something that we were particularly keen for the Court to address. This ruling is very much in keeping with the industry’s own views and ongoing commitment to ensuring that all passengers are able use their local bus services, and enjoy a safe and comfortable journey. The world has already moved on since this incident occurred and operators will now consider if further changes are needed to follow the Court’s ruling.’

Unity Law’s Chris Fry, who represented Doug throughout this case, said, ‘This decision delivers cultural and practical change for disabled people. It establishes what we are calling the “Paulley Principle” which is that bus companies have to give priority use to disabled customers over the wheelchair space. The First Come First Served policy has been ruled a breach of the Equality Act, and immediate changes now need to be made by First Group and other transport companies to promote a more accessible service. If you need a wheelchair to get around and have had to endure the stress and anxiety of not knowing whether you’re going to be able to get on a bus, this Judgment changes your everyday life. The law is on your side. The old minimalist policy of requiring bus drivers simply to request someone move (request and retreat) will give rise to claims for compensation. We expect to see an immediate difference to the way that disabled passengers are treated.’

Head of Communications at disability charity Scope, Richard Lane, said, ‘This is an important milestone. It’s a victory for common sense, and disabled customers will now want to see action from travel companies. Wheelchair spaces on buses exist because of a sustained campaign by disabled people. But today many wheelchair users still face difficulties accessing the spaces on buses, often causing a great deal of distress. Most people don’t realise just how difficult it is for disabled people to get around, to get to the shops, or to visit friends. These spaces are often a lifeline into work and the local community. This ruling sends a clear message to transport providers right across the country that they have a responsibility to make travel easier and more comfortable for all of their customers.’

With the ability of both sides to claim victory, Bus Users UK has expressed disappointment at the ruling. In particular, the organisation was disappointed the Supreme Court did not make it a legal requirement that someone refusing to vacate the space should be required to leave the bus. Chief Executive of Bus Users, Claire Walters, said, ‘This ruling has failed to provide clarity for either drivers or passengers. While it is now a requirement for drivers to take further steps where a reasonable request to move is refused, it is not clear what those steps should be and the driver has no legal basis on which to require a passenger to leave the bus if they refuse to move.’

The Supreme Court’s judgement on this case can be downloaded here:

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