Doug Paulley, a wheelchair user who took legal action when denied access to a bus because the wheelchair priority space was occupied by a buggy, has been granted permission to appeal a previously overturned unlawful discrimination case. The case is being funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Wheelchair-user Doug Paulley had successfully sued bus operator FirstGroup when he was unable to board the bus. The only occupied wheelchair space had been taken up by a woman with a pushchair who refused to move, claiming she was unable to fold the buggy. Although Paulley offered to fold up his own wheelchair so he could sit in a standard seat, the driver refused, citing safety reasons.
Paulley had to wait for the next bus, missed his rail connection and was one hour late at his ultimate destination. In September 2013, the court upheld the complaint and ordered the bus operator to pay £5,500 in compensation. FirstGroup appealed in November 2014, and Transport for All members held a supportive demonstration outside the court. But the decision in Doug’s favour was overturned.
The Supreme Court will now reconsider the case which could set a legal precedent for enforceable priority over wheelchair space. Paulley says that he ‘relieved’ and added the case wouldn’t have got so far“without so many disabled people sticking their necks out and campaigning around it and making it such a public issue”.
The Court of Appeal judges who overturned the original decision, said that for a bus company to have an enforceable policy which ensured passengers vacated the wheelchair space was ‘a step too far’. Speaking to the court, Lord Justice Lewison argued that whilst it was ‘right’ to make reasonable adjustments, these should depend on the impact of others:“The judge seems to me to have thought that the needs of wheelchair users trumped all over considerations. If that is the case, I respectfully disagree,”he said.
Transport For All welcomes the Supreme Court’s permission to appeal. We believe that bus companies should enforce wheelchair priority in the wheelchair bay, offering training to drivers; clear signage in the wheelchair bay and audio announcements to remind passengers and passengers that they must not prevent disabled people from boarding. These are all reasonable steps, and indeed the ruling, whilst stopping short of ruling in Doug’s favour, stated that bus companies “must take all reasonable steps short of compelling passengers to move from the wheelchair space”. She added that First Bus should provide training for its drivers and “devise strategies that bus drivers can lawfully adopt to persuade people to clear the wheelchair space when needed by a wheelchair user”, and suggested that changes in bus design could be made, such as providing fold-up seats.
Lord Justice Underhill stated:
“It has to be accepted that our conclusion and reasoning in this case means that wheelchair users will occasionally be prevented by other passengers from using the wheelchair space on the bus…I do not, however, believe that the fact that some passengers will – albeit rarely – act selfishly and irresponsibly is a sufficient reason for imposing on bus companies a legal responsibility for a situation which is not of their making and which they are not in a position to prevent.“
The naivete of Lord Justice Underhill’s conviction that it is ‘rare’ and ‘occasional’ that wheelchair users are prevented from boarding would be sweet if the consequences weren’t so serious. Every wheelchair user we speak to who uses buses has been denied access onto a bus at some point . Tourettes Hero blogs about the challenges she faces on public transport. Two months ago, she blogged
“Yesterday three buses went past with their wheelchair spaces occupied before I was able to get on, meaning that I had to wait twenty minutes longer than if I hadn’t been in my chair. If you think of this happening several times a day on different journeys it gives you an idea of the inequality in service that wheelchair users experience.”
This muddled ruling did nothing to support drivers in enforcing wheelchair priority, or give clarity on wheelchair users’ right to use buses, and we hope that this appeal will result in increased protection for disabled people’s ability to travel with confidence, free from fear of refusal.
A clear message to transport operators
We hope that Doug’s appeal will be upheld and in doing so, will send a clear message to all bus operators. Disabled people fought and won the wheelchair space, and the right to be able to travel on buses. We can’t let this right be eroded by a failure to enforce it as a wheelchair bay.
Disability legislation was implemented to protect disabled people from unfair and discriminatory treatment and as such, it should be 100 per cent enforceable by law.