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Supreme Court rules in favour of wheelchair users

27th Jan 2017

The Supreme Court has unanimously approved the principle that disabled passengers have a right to priority access over the wheelchair space on a bus.

The president of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, held that bus drivers must try to persuade other passengers to make room for wheelchair users and should be “pressurising or shaming recalcitrant non-wheelchair users to move” if they believe a refusal to make space is unreasonable.

The ruling brings to an end a five-year legal battle for wheelchair user Doug Paulley, who was unable to get on a First Group bus from Wetherby to Leeds in February 2012 when a woman with a pushchair refused to move for him. When asked by the driver to move, pursuant to company policy, the woman refused, saying that the buggy would not fold.

The driver took no further action, leaving Paulley unable to board the bus. Paulley sued First Group plc for unlawful discrimination. Sitting at Leeds County Court, Recorder Paul Isaacs ruled the “first come, first served” policy was unlawful discrimination in breach of the Equality Act 2010.

However, the Court of Appeal overturned the judgement, finding that the “proper remedy” for wheelchair users was to ask parliament for legislative change.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court allowed Paulley’s appeal, but only to the extent that the bus driver should have taken further steps to force the woman into making space for the wheelchair.

Lord Neuberger said “Where the driver concludes that non-wheelchair users’ refusal is unreasonable it seems to me that it would be unjustifiable for a bus-operating company to have a policy which does not require some further step of the bus driver”

Chris Fry, managing partner of Unity Law, who has represented Paulley throughout the claim, said the decision delivered cultural and practical change for disabled people. “It establishes what we are calling the “Paulley principle”, which is that bus companies have to give priority use to disabled customers over the wheelchair space.”

Fry said immediate changes must now be made by transport companies to promote a more accessible service.