Supreme Court hears wheelchair vs buggy case

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A case that will determine whether bus operators should force people with pushchairs and others vacate disabled spaces on buses was heard by the Supreme Court on Wednesday (June 15). CBW understands the judgement is expected later in the year.

Wheelchair user Doug Paulley was told he could not travel on a bus to Leeds in 2012 when a mother with a pushchair refused to move from the disabled area. He claims FirstGroup’s ‘requesting, not requiring’ policy is discriminatory, while the operator says its policy is the most feasible which can be employed.

Under the Equality Act 2010, companies providing services must make reasonable adjustments to accommodate the disabled.

Doug sued FirstGroup and won an initial case, which declared the policy to be unlawful disability discrimination. He was awarded £5,500 in compensation and FirstGroup was given six months to change its policy.

FirstGroup then appealed successfully to the Court of Appeal in 2014. The court ruled that although wheelchair users have priority to occupy the wheelchair space, there is no legal requirement for bus drivers to move other passengers from it. Doug subsequently appealed that decision.

The case is the first disability discrimination case involving service providers to be heard by the Supreme Court. The judgment is expected to have wide-ranging implications for bus, rail and other transport companies and service providers.

Speaking to the BBC, Doug said: “I appreciate it is difficult with kids and luggage and everything else, to fold a pushchair, or to move it, but ultimately unless she did that she is effectively stopping me from being able to use that bus.

“It’s about the reasonable adjustments that organisations have to make so that disabled people can have access to the things that other people in society take for granted.”

Giles Fearnley, Managing Director of First UK Bus, said: “It is very rare for a passenger to refuse to move. Our drivers will ask a passenger in the strongest, politest way they can to move, and we train them to do so.

“When someone does refuse to move it is extraordinarily unfortunate, but we do believe that the approach we take is the most feasible under the circumstances.”

In a statement after the hearing, Giles added: “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 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.”

Doug’s case is being funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Its CEO Rebecca Hilsenrath said: “For us, this case is about sending a message across the country to bus companies to put in place policies, clear guidelines and training for bus drivers so that they are able to manage the situation so that they give priority to those in wheelchairs.”