Disabled travellers have won a partial victory at the Supreme Court in their battle for priority use of wheelchair spaces on buses.
The case was triggered when wheelchair user Doug Paulley attempted to board a bus operated by FirstGroup which had a sign saying: “Please give up this space if needed for a wheelchair user”.
Mr Paulley was left at the stop because a woman with a sleeping baby in a pushchair refused to move out of the designated area when asked by the bus driver. She said the buggy would not fold.
FirstGroup has a policy of “requesting but not requiring” non-disabled travellers, including those with babies and pushchairs, to vacate the space if it is needed by a wheelchair user.
A judge at Leeds County Court ruled that the policy breached FirstGroup’s duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people.
Recorder Paul Isaacs said the bus company policy should have “required” the woman to move and the wheelchair user’s right to priority should have been enforced.
But the recorder’s judgment was overturned by the Court of Appeal, which ruled that such a policy would not strike a fair balance between the needs of wheelchair users and the needs of other passengers who might be vulnerable. The policy would also be liable to give rise to confrontation and delayed journeys.
Mr Paulley, in his late 30s, then continued his fight before seven justices at the UK’s highest court.
Today, Lord Neuberger, the Supreme Court’s president, explained that Mr Paulley’s appeal was being allowed, but only to the limited 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 such 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.
Mr Paulley said earlier: “This is the first time the Supreme Court has considered a disability discrimination case relating to the provision of goods and services.
“We are seeking a clear ruling that bus companies have to do more to make it likely that wheelchair users will be able to travel.
“We also need a change in culture so that people with pushchairs realise they have to move out of these spaces for wheelchairs so that situations become less of a crunch point and confrontational.”
Martin Chamberlain QC, appearing for FirstGroup, submitted to the Supreme Court that there had been no unlawful discrimination against Mr Paulley.
He argued that requiring passengers occupying the wheelchair space to move if it was needed by wheelchair users “regardless of circumstances” and under threat of ejection from the bus, was “not a reasonable adjustment” under the Equality Act.
Anna Bird, spokeswoman for disability charity Scope, said it was hoped the Supreme Court decision would bring clarity for all bus users.
She said: “Companies allocated accessible spaces on buses following a sustained campaign by disabled people. Today, they are often a lifeline into work and the community.
“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.
“We’d like to see transport companies looking for ways to make it easier for all of their customers to use their services.”