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3 February 2017

Wheelchair user wins equality case against bus company

After a long and arduous battle, Mr Doug Paulley has succeeded in his claim against FirstGroup Plc under the Equality Act 2010. On 18th January 2017 the final judgment was handed down in favour of Mr Paulley.

In 2012, Mr Paulley, a wheelchair user, waited for a bus at Wetherby bus station. He intended to take this bus to Leeds, where he then planned to catch a train to Stalybridge to have lunch with his parents. However, when the bus arrived, Mr Paulley found himself turned away on account of a pushchair user occupying the allocated wheelchair area.

The driver of the bus in question had asked the woman with the pushchair to fold the pushchair up in order to allow Mr Paulley to board the bus. However, when this woman refused, Mr Paulley was told he would have to wait for the next bus. Furthermore, when Mr Paulley asked the driver if he could fold up his wheelchair and use an ordinary passenger seat, the driver refused due to there being no way of securing the wheelchair safely during the winding bus route ahead.

Mr Paulley brought the case to the County Court and argued that in refusing him access to the bus, FirstGroup Plc had failed to make the “reasonable adjustments” required in section 29(2) of the Equality Act 2010. It is interesting to note that FirstGroup Plc’s policy on the matter when Mr Paulley was refused access was different to the policy presented at the time the matter was taken to Court. However, both policies stated that where a passenger refused to move out of a wheelchair space the wheelchair user would have to wait for the next bus. Interestingly though, FirstGroup Plc still argued that their policy was adequate and did not breach the Equality Act 2010. In the County Court, a judgment was handed down in favour of Mr Paulley, because they had breached their duties under the Equality Act 2010 to provide “reasonable adjustments” for wheelchair users.

FirstGroup Plc appealed the decision and it went to the Court of Appeal, where a decision was handed down in favour of FirstGroup Plc. In this judgment it was argued that while Mr Paulley was at a disadvantage, he had not been put at this disadvantage by FirstGroup Plc’s policy itself and on this basis the question of whether FirstGroup Plc had made “reasonable adjustments” for wheelchair users in the policy was moot.

In the Supreme Court, however an arguably more interesting judgment was given. On the face of it, it would seem that the Lord Justice’s and Lady were mostly opposed to the decision handed down in the County Court in the first instance. However, after close inspection it becomes clear that while the Supreme Court judges agree with the decision itself handed down in the County Court, they do not agree with the reasons behind that decision. Certainly, Lord Neuberger stated that he was unwilling to hold that FirstGroup Plc had breached their duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make “reasonable adjustments” for wheelchair users. However, a theme seemed to appear in that while FirstGroup were not believed to have breached their duties under the Equality Act 2010, they should have done more to persuade the passenger with the pushchair to vacate the wheelchair space for Mr Paulley. In essence, a middle ground must be found between physically forcing a passenger to vacate a wheelchair space and simply taking the first refusal and moving on.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Mr Paulley in that FirstGroup Plc should have done more than simply request the lady with the pushchair to move. On the face of it, this may arguably be the morally correct judgment. However, it certainly leads to grey areas within the law and service providers of all nature are likely to be affected by the legal implications of this judgment.

If you want to know more about the impact of this case, or have any equality issues you wish to discuss, or you would like to speak to a member of the Dispute resolution team please call 01603 598000 or complete the ‘Get in touch’ online enquiry form and a member of the team will contact you. Appointments are available in Norwich, Diss, and London.

This article is for general guidance only. It is not to be relied upon and professional advice should always be taken on specific circumstances.


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