We all know the challenges a busy rush hour commute can throw at us, with people packing into tight spaces like human sardines. But what of the wheelchair user who wishes to board a bus, only to find that non-wheelchair users are taking up the wheelchair space? How far should the driver go to ensure that the wheelchair user is not unfairly discriminated against?
In what has been billed in the tabloid press as the 'Wheelchair v buggy' case, the Supreme Court in First Group plc v Paulley has held that a bus operator’s policy regarding wheelchair space on its buses breached the duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010. The court viewed it as not enough to instruct drivers to simply request that non-wheelchair users vacate a wheelchair space, and further action should have been taken by the driver.
Mr Paulley tried to board a bus operated by FirstGroup who display signs on their buses requesting passengers to “please give up this space if needed for a wheelchair user”. Mr Paulley could not board as a mother with a sleeping child in a buggy refused to budge. Her reason for not moving was that the buggy would not fold. The driver took no further action and the dismayed Mr Paulley was left at the bus stop. He then sued the company for disability discrimination, arguing that FirstGroup’s policy of “requesting, not requiring” people to make space for disabled passengers was unlawful, winning £5,500 in damages.
The bus operator successfully appealed at the Court of Appeal, and Mr Paulley took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, with the hope and expectation that the law would be clarified.
The President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, articulated the position that if “there is some other place on the bus to which a non-wheelchair user could move, I cannot see why a driver should be expected to rephrase any polite request as a requirement”, accepting the argument that the driver should be obligated to do more than simply request. The court held that the driver should be required to try and persuade or pressurise other passengers to make room for wheelchair users.
This can take a number of forms, such as:-
- Rephrasing a request to move as a requirement; or
- Refusing to drive on for a period of time or stopping the bus with the intention to pressurise or shame the obstinate passenger to move.
Although some have argued that the ruling does not really move us along very much, as drivers will not be compelled to remove unruly passengers refusing to budge, the case has been applauded by many campaigners and charities as a “victory for common sense”. Indeed, Mr Paulley’s lawyer, Mr Chris Fry, has commended the case as establishing the “Paulley principle”, whereby the aged policy of “request and retreat” has been replaced by a more progressive and forceful policy of “request and require”.
Mr Paulley’s case has set a precedent for other cases involving potentially discriminative behaviours regarding disability and services.
There will be huge implications for all service providers with wheelchair amenities, including trains, supermarket car parks and other travel companies.
Policies will need to be drafted to ensure that wheelchair users are not substantially disadvantaged, as well enhanced training programmes for drivers and operators who will be in a position to enforce them. Although the decision may not completely rid wheelchair users from concerns that they won’t be able to access public transport, it will go some way to easing their peace of mind.
For further information, read our article on disability and discrimination law.
If you would like any further information in relation to disability discrimination or any other HR queries then please contact Employment Solicitor Daniel Stander on 0808 168 5550 or at email@example.com.