Questions remain as Supreme Court rules on wheelchair access case

Questions remain as Supreme Court rules on wheelchair access case

The Supreme Court has finally ruled on the long-running case brought by Doug Paulley against First Bus with regard to wheelchair spaces. However, there were a variety of opinions expressed by the seven judges who heard the appeal, reflecting the complexity of the argument surrounding the use of wheelchair spaces and enforcement.

The diversity of views on the subject also led to slightly contradictory messages of welcome to the judgement from those on both ‘sides’ of the argument.

The case arose from an incident in 2012 when wheelchair user Doug Paulley was unable to board a First bus as the dedicated space was occupied by a woman with a sleeping child in a buggy. The ensuing legal case has centred on whether wheelchair users have an absolute right to use the space provided for them on buses, and in effect, whether the driver and operator should eject another passenger who is already occupying the space.

Paulley initially won his case for discrimination and was awarded damages by the recorder, but the judgement was overturned by the court of appeal.

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal from Paulley to a limited extent and essentially ruled that a driver must do more than politely request that a non-wheelchair passenger moves, but it stepped short of saying that such a passenger, even if acting in an unreasonable manner, could be forcibly ejected from the bus.

“This has always been a complex and sensitive case,” says Daniel Fawcett, managing associate at law firm Bond Dickinson. “That is because it deals with the tension between the rights of disabled service users; the impact on other service users of potential reasonable adjustments; and an understandable desire of service providers for their employees not to be put at risk by getting involved in a confrontation with service users who are unwilling to comply with a request. 

“In that respect, it is perhaps no surprise that the Supreme Court’s decision is one that it is unlikely that either party would be fully happy with. The precise steps that are reasonable for a driver to take will depend on the circumstances and may depend on another passenger’s reasons for not moving (and potentially that passenger’s behaviour). However, what is clear is that a driver will need to go beyond a single request to a customer taking up the wheelchair space.”

First Bus managing director Giles Fearnley welcomed the decision from the Supreme Court not to require drivers to remove customers from vehicles, which it says was the company’s key issue in the case. 

“This was clearly a difficult case for the Supreme Court with six different judgments, and we look forward to receiving further clarity around the decision when the Court publishes its Order,” says Fearnley. “In response, we will implement any necessary changes.”

First Bus says its current policy is to ask other customers in the strongest polite terms to make way for a passenger in a wheelchair who needs the space.

First was backed by the industry’s trade association, CPT, with chief executive Simon Posner commenting: “We welcome this decision and the clarification it provides over the priority for access to wheelchair spaces on our buses. The ruling confirms that our drivers are not legally required to remove (from the vehicle) non-wheelchair passengers occupying the designated wheelchair space. This is something that we were particularly keen for the Court to address.”

Transport union RMT also welcomed the ruling, albeit with a slightly different interpretation: “This decision in respect of wheelchair user Doug Paulley is a great result for disabled passengers’ rights,” says Mick Cash, RMT general secretary. “By ruling that FirstGroup’s policy of requiring a driver to simply request a non-wheelchair user to vacate the space without taking any further steps was unjustified, shows that it is not the responsibility of disabled passengers to fight discrimination but the companies offering the service.”

Expressing a lone, contrary opinion on the ruling was Bus UserS chief executive Claire Walters who adds: “This ruling has failed to provide clarity for either drivers or passengers. While it is now a requirement for drivers to take further steps where a reasonable request to move is refused, it is not clear what those steps should be and the driver has no legal basis on which to require a passenger to leave the bus if they refuse to move.

“Rather than having to decide whose needs are greatest, what is actually needed are better-designed buses that can accommodate the needs of the people who use them.”