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“First come first served” for bus wheelchair bay ruled unlawful

Doug Pauley, a wheelchair user in Leeds, has won a historic victory against First Group Buses for denying him access to the wheelchair bay.

The case, brought with disability discrimination specialists Unity Law, has found that a ‘first come first served’ policy on buses is in breach of the Equalities Act. The judgement opens the way for other wheelchair users to bring similar cases when they are refused access.

Being denied access to the wheelchair space on buses is one of the commonest barriers that wheelchair and scooter users face when travelling by bus. Although 64% of buses in England are now physically wheelchair accessible, in terms of ramps and bays, all too often other passengers use the bay to store pushchairs or luggage.

In London, TfL make it clear in their Big Red Book that bus drivers must ask buggy users to move if the space is required, and last year launched a publicity campaign about wheelchair users’ right to the space. Yet all too often we receive complaints of bus drivers failing to do this, leaving disabled passengers abandoned at the bus stop. Wheelchair users say that the prospect of a stressful, embarassing argument with passengers and driver puts many off even attempting to travel by bus. In summer 2012, a bus driver refused access to a wheelchair user because of a buggy in the space and prompted an occupation of the bus stop.

Doug Pauley was awarded £5,500 compensation after a bus driver refusing him access led to him missing a train and a family day out. The judgement also compels First Group to make changes to their training and policies to ensure that access for wheelchair users to the wheelchair bay is required, not simply requested.

In his judgement, the judge stated:

“ … the system of priority given to wheelchair users should be enforced as a matter not of request, to any non-disabled user of the wheelchair space, but of requirement…”

He went on to note that:

“ just as there are conditions of carriage which forbid smoking, making a nuisance or other “anti-social” behaviour on the pain of being asked to leave the bus then a refusal to accede to a requirement to vacate the space could have similar consequences. In my view, once the system had been advertised and in place there would be unlikely to be caused any disruption or confrontation as all passengers would know where they were. Although such a policy might inconvenience a mother with a buggy that, I am afraid, is a consequence of the protection which Parliament has chosen to give to disabled wheelchair users and not to non-disabled mothers with buggies.”

In London, currently bus drivers are told that if buggy users do not move when requested, then bus drivers are instructed to drive on and leave the wheelchair user, radio-ing to ask the next bus to pick them up. This ruling suggests that in future, simply requesting but acceding to a parent who refuses to comply would not be enough, and would open up the bus company to legal action. Wheelchair users who could show they attempted to board a bus but were refused because of an occupied wheelchair bay; and can show that this caused them grievance (e.g. affecting their confidence to travel or causing stress as their travel plans were disrupted), would have a case.

Lip service

Chris Fry, Managing Partner at Unity Law who took the case, said:

“The Judge recognised that companies are often very good at paying lip service to the concept of making transport more accessible, but at grassroots level we are contacted every week by wheelchair users who recount a different story. There’s no point in having an accessible bus, if the service itself is inaccessible. That makes a mockery of the protection provided to the disabled service user by the Equality Act.”

This is certainly true of First Group, who last year sponsored a seminar on disabled people and transport hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Disability Group, boasting of the work they do to make bus travel accessible to disabled people. Meanwhile, their website stated that and wheelchair users did not have priority over buggies in the bay and “if a fellow passenger refuses to move [the wheelchair user] will need to wait for the next bus“.

More spacious buses needed

The case highlights the urgent need to introduce redesigned buses which provide space for both wheelchair and buggy users, as well as passengers with shopper trolleys, walking frames, luggage or guidedogs. Transport for All would like to see the bus industry work towards spacious buses which we can all use without conflict. In Scotland, City Fleet buses acccomodate both buggies and wheelchairs.