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Supreme Court rules in favour of wheelchair user

‘Paulley principle’ requires bus companies to give disabled customers priority over wheelchair space

18 January 2017

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The Supreme Court has unanimously approved the principle that disabled passengers have a right to priority access over the wheelchair space on a bus.

Giving the lead judgment, the president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, held that bus drivers must try to persuade other passengers to make room for wheelchair users and should be ‘pressurising or shaming recalcitrant non-wheelchair users to move’ if they believe a refusal to make space is unreasonable.

The ruling brings to an end a five-year legal battle fought by wheelchair user Doug Paulley, who was left unable to get on a First Group bus from Wetherby to Leeds in February 2012 when a woman with a pushchair refused to move for him.

A sign on the bus asked passengers occupying the wheelchair space to ‘please give up this space if needed for a wheelchair user’. Upon being asked by the driver to move, pursuant to company policy, the woman – who had a baby in a pushchair – refused, saying that the buggy would not fold.

The driver took no further action and Paulley was unable to board the bus. Paulley sued First Group plc for unlawful discrimination. Sitting at Leeds County Court, Recorder Paul Isaacs ruled the ‘first come, first served’ policy was unlawful discrimination in breach of the Equality Act 2010.

However, the Court of Appeal overturned the judgment, finding that the ‘proper remedy’ for wheelchair users was to ask parliament for legislative change.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court allowed Paulley’s appeal but only to the extent that the bus driver should have taken further steps to force the woman into making space for the wheelchair.

Lord Neuberger said: ‘Where the driver concludes that non-wheelchair users’ refusal is unreasonable it seems to me that it would be unjustifiable for a bus-operating company to have a policy which does not require some further step of the bus driver…

‘Where there is some other place on the bus to which a non-wheelchair user could move, I cannot see why a driver should not be expected to rephrase any polite request as a requirement.’

However, by a four to three majority, the court decided not to award damages to Paulley. Lady Hale, Lord Kerr, and Lord Clarke dissented.

Chris Fry, managing partner of Unity Law, who has represented Paulley throughout the claim, said the decision delivered 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.’

Fry said immediate changes must now be made by transport companies to promote a more accessible service. ‘The old minimalist policy of requiring bus drivers simply to request someone move (request and retreat) will give rise to claims for compensation,’ he added. ‘We expect to see an immediate difference to the way that disabled passengers are treated.’

Chris Jackson, a partner in the dispute resolution team at Burges Salmon, said: 'We are pleased for First Group that the Supreme Court has confirmed that the Court of Appeal was correct in its own judgment and that the original judgment was not workable in practice. The further adjustments raised for the first time in the Supreme Court hearing and adopted by four of the seven judges will doubtless be taken forward both by the industry and by parliament in any review of the rules.'

Giles Fearnley, managing director of First Bus, also welcomed the judgment: ‘[The Supreme Court] 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.’

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor for Solicitors Journal

john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

Categorised in:

Discrimination Courts & Judiciary

Tagged in:

Equality Act 2010 DISABILITY