Wheelchair spaces on buses must be available to disabled people, bus companies told

Published: 15 Jun 2016

Bus companies must ensure wheelchair users have priority in using wheelchair spaces and end ‘first come, first served’ policies, the Equality and Human Rights Commission will say at the Supreme Court today.

The Commission is taking the case of Mr Doug Paulley to the Supreme Court. In February 2012, Mr Paulley, a wheelchair user, 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.

David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 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.”

Rebecca Hilsenrath, Equality and Human Rights Commission Chief Executive and Chief Legal Officer, added:

“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.”

Doug Paulley said: 

“It’s not right that I, and other wheelchair users, should be nervously looking to see if anybody is in the wheelchair space and wondering what will happen. This can cause a great deal of distress. Wheelchair spaces are the only place on the bus that wheelchair users can travel in; if they aren’t available, wheelchair users can’t travel. This is the single biggest barrier experienced by wheelchair users when accessing transport, and most wheelchair users experience this.

“Bus companies need to have clear policies so that we can have a culture where non-disabled people automatically move to other areas. More needs to be done to ensure that this space is available to wheelchair users when needed.”

Justine Roberts, Mumsnet CEO, said:

“The general consensus on Mumsnet is that when it comes to the priority space, wheelchair users take precedence. A lack of space on crowded buses can cause problems for those with travelling with pushchairs, shopping and babies; Mumsnet users would like to see more flexible space for storage, but certainly not at the expense of wheelchair users.”

Chris Fry at Unity law said:

“Unity Law has been proud to support Doug on this case since 2012, and shared his ups and downs throughout this legal process. It’s the first case concerning service provision that the Supreme Court has ever assessed. A panel of seven Supreme Court Judges is unusual, and a reflection of the significance of the case, which both the President and Deputy President of the Supreme Court are presiding over.

“We hope that the Supreme Court will finally make the correct legal and moral decision that supports the overriding objective of social inclusion for disabled people, and find in favour of Doug.”

Further background

Mr Paulley successfully sued FirstGroup in the County Court for unlawful discrimination. The County Court stated FirstGroup’s policy discriminated against Mr Paulley and put him at a substantial disadvantage. FirstGroup were asked to change their 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 Commission will argue the Court of Appeal’s ruling undermines the effectiveness of the need to make reasonable adjustments by anticipating what changes may be needed even before disabled people use the service.

The Supreme Court is hearing the case today. The judgment is expected at a later date.

Read the case background

Press contact details

For more press information contact the Commission's media office on:

0161 829 8102