Wheelchair spaces on buses must be a priority, court rules

Published: 18 Jan 2017

Bus companies must end ‘first come, first served’ policies, and do more to give priority to wheelchair users after a landmark Supreme Court ruling today.

The case of Paulley vs FirstGroup plc, backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, will mean wheelchair users should be given priority for wheelchair spaces on buses. Bus companies should have clear policies in place and give training to drivers to remove the barriers wheelchair users face when using buses.

Equality and Human Rights Commission Chair, David Isaac, called today’s verdict “a victory for disabled people’s rights” and “a hugely important decision, which has helped clarify the current state of the law, and will give confidence to thousands of disabled people in Britain to use public transport”.

The case centred on whether a ‘first come, first served’ policy was discriminatory against wheelchair users, or if bus companies could do more to ensure wheelchair spaces on buses are vacated when a wheelchair user enters the bus.

In February 2012, Doug 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.

Mr Paulley successfully sued FirstGroup at Leeds County Court for unlawful discrimination against him due to his disability, but this was later overturned on appeal. The case was then heard by the Supreme Court, which has given its final verdict today. The Commission has supported Mr Paulley at the Court of Appeal, and at the Supreme Court.

David Isaac added:

“Public transport is essential for disabled people to live independently, yet bus companies have not made it easy for this to happen. This is a victory for disabled people’s rights. The success of this case means bus companies will have to end ‘first come, first served’ polices, increasing peace of mind for disabled people.

“This has been about correcting a confusing policy which has caused untold problems for disabled people.

“For years, wheelchair users have been deterred from using vital public transport links because they could not be sure they will be able to get on. Today’s judgment will make that easier.”

The court has suggested that the law should be reconsidered in order to provide much needed clarity for bus companies and their customers, and the Commission will be pressing the government to commit to these changes in the Bus Services Bill.

Chris Fry 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.

“If you rely 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.”

Notes to editors

Comments from the presiding Supreme Court judges

Lady Hale said:

“108. This case is about whether there were adjustments which the company could have made which would have enabled Mr Paulley to board this bus. There clearly were.”

“101. […] service providers owe positive duties towards disabled people, including wheelchair users, which they do not owe to other members of the travelling public, including parents travelling with small children in baby buggies or other people travelling with bulky luggage. The Court of Appeal, in my view, fell into the trap of assuming that the claims of disabled travellers were no different from the claims of any other person wishing to use the buses. They are not. Disabled people are, for very good reasons, a special case.”

“103. It is obviously reasonable to expect bus operators to do more than FirstGroup did in this case.”

“104. […] The point has to be got across that other people are required to vacate the wheelchair space if it is needed by a wheelchair user.”

“105. […] there will be some circumstances in which it is not reasonable to expect an existing occupier to vacate the wheelchair space. This is so, although it is important to bear in mind that non-disabled people are not entitled to be treated in the same way as disabled people. There is no duty to make reasonable adjustments for them.”

Lord Kerr said:

“122. […] It is an entirely reasonable adjustment. It removes the element of choice on the part of the passenger occupying the space. They know, and, importantly, know in advance, that they will have to move. Some passengers may not like it but that is not the point. Such a notice, as well as eliminating any scope for debate, constitutes a significant statement which accords precisely with the Government’s policy of providing comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people and achieving a fully accessible public transport system for them”

“126. Quite apart from the effect of regulation 12, a passenger who is “readily and reasonably” able to move from a wheelchair space commits an offence under regulation 6(1)(b) if his refusal prevents a wheelchair user from being allowed to board the bus. This regulation prohibits any passenger from unreasonably impeding another passenger from entering a bus.”

“135. […]Wheelchair users face formidable difficulties in making use of facilities that the able-bodied can take for granted. If inconvenience to the travelling public because of delay is the price which has to be paid to allow those who depend on a wheelchair to make maximum use of the transport system which is made available to all, I do not consider that this is, in any sense, unreasonable.”

“136. […] The inevitable fact that there will be occasions when it would not be appropriate to require a passenger to leave a wheelchair space does not require that the correct policy should not be in place.

"137. Of course, the decision when to enforce the adjusted policy rigidly and when to relax or modify it calls for judgment to be exercised by the bus driver.”

Lord Clarke said:

“157. […] Disabled people are a special case. Their needs are to be treated differently from those of others, including those with buggies. […] It should have been made clear to passengers that wheelchair users had priority over others, who should have been required to vacate the wheelchair space.”

Lord Toulson said:

“85. […] the bus company ought to have adopted a policy of training its staff to make clear, in circumstances where a wheelchair user wanted to board the bus but the wheelchair space was occupied by somebody who could reasonably and readily move to another part of the bus, that the person occupying it must do so.”

Lord Sumption said:

“88. If a wheelchair user wishes to occupy the designated wheelchair space on a bus, basic decency and courtesy require the non-wheelchair user occupying it to move, unless he or she has a very good reason not to do so. […]”

On changing the law

Lord Toulson said:

“87. By way of postscript, the Court of Appeal made critical comments about the present state of the law in this area. The divisions of opinion in this court may be thought to reinforce the desirability of it receiving fresh legislative consideration.”

Lord Neuberger refers to “the advisability of reconsidering the state of the law in this area.” (para 70)

Lord Sumption said:

 “88. […] The difficulty in this case is that the Conduct Regulations deal with the obligations of passengers at paras 5 and 6, without imposing any obligation on them to vacate the wheelchair space when it is required by a wheelchair user. […]

"91. The ideal solution, if there is one, would be to change the law so as to create an obligation on the part of non-wheelchair users, enforceable in the same way as the rule against anti-social behaviour, to move unless the driver reasonably considers that they have a sufficient reason not to do so.”

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