By: 27 January 2017
Bus operators face potential rethink over passengers’ rights following wheelchair claim ruling

A Supreme Court ruling on a wheelchair claim that has given priority access over wheelchair spaces on buses to disabled people has left bus operators facing a potential rethink over passengers’ rights.

It is thought that transport companies will now need to carefully review their policies, terms and conditions, and driver training after the decision in a case involving a passenger on a FirstGroup bus in Yorkshire.

Unity Law won the landmark case after representing Doug Paulley, a wheelchair user, who spent over five years in his pursuit of a claim against bus operator First Group. Paulley tried to get on a bus to Leeds at Wetherby bus station in 2012. The only available wheelchair space on the bus was occupied by a mother with a pram who refused to move to make way for Paulley since the pram could not be accommodated elsewhere on the bus.

The bus driver asked the mother to move but she refused and, as a result, Paulley could not get on and had to wait for the next service. He brought a case against FirstGroup, arguing that the operator’s “requesting, not requiring” policy, which saw drivers only asking passengers to move out of disabled spaces, was discriminatory.

The Supreme Court ruled last week that the policy was a breach of the Equality Act, meaning that immediate changes need to be made by First Group and other transport companies to promote a more accessible service.

Chris Fry, the managing partner of Unity Law, said: “This decision delivers 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.

Frank Suttie, a partner in the commercial team at Ward Hadaway, who advises the transport sector, said that it was important for bus operators to review their policies and driver training in the light of the ruling.

“Drivers should be instructed that they should use their judgement to be more forceful in requesting non-wheelchair users to vacate wheelchair spaces in favour of wheelchair users – a policy of simply requesting someone to move is not enough,” he said.

“However, there does remain a significant grey area here since the Supreme Court did not specify what further steps would be reasonable for a driver to take when faced with such a situation, other than to say it should be appropriate to the circumstances.

“Since the Court said that it could be unreasonable to force a non-wheelchair user to leave the bus, it does leave operators in a potentially difficult situation.”

Paul Hughes, a consultant at Ward Hadaway, who advises transport companies in personal injury cases, added that bus companies could still face potential claims from passengers if the driver forced them to leave a bus for not moving out of a wheelchair space.

“In that light, it is sensible for bus operators to thoroughly review their policies and procedures in this area to see if they can achieve a balance between maintaining the rights of disabled passengers and those of other bus users,” he said.