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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Partial Supreme Court victory for disabled over wheelchair spaces on buses

Written by The Press Association

Disabled travellers have won a partial victory at the Supreme Court in their battle for priority use of wheelchair spaces on buses.

The case was triggered when wheelchair user Doug Paulley, from Wetherby, West Yorkshire, attempted to board a bus operated by FirstGroup which had a sign saying: ''Please give up this space if needed for a wheelchair user".

Mr Paulley was left at the stop because a woman with a sleeping baby in a pushchair refused to move out of the designated area when asked by the bus driver. She said the buggy would not fold.

FirstGroup has a policy of ''requesting but not requiring'' non-disabled travellers, including those with babies and pushchairs, to vacate the space if it is needed by a wheelchair user.

A judge at Leeds County Court ruled that the policy breached FirstGroup's duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make "reasonable adjustments" for disabled people.

Recorder Paul Isaacs said the bus company policy should have "required" the woman to move and the wheelchair user's right to priority should have been enforced.

But the recorder's judgment was overturned by the Court of Appeal, which ruled that such a policy would not strike a fair balance between the needs of wheelchair users and the needs of other passengers who might be vulnerable. The policy would also be liable to give rise to confrontation and delayed journeys.

Mr Paulley, in his late 30s, then continued his fight before seven justices at the UK's highest court.

On Wednesday, Lord Neuberger, the Supreme Court's president, explained that Mr Paulley's appeal was being allowed, but only to the limited extent that FirstGroup's policy requiring a driver to simply request a non-wheelchair user to vacate the space without taking any further steps was unjustified.

Where a driver who has made such a request concludes that such a refusal is unreasonable, he or she should consider some further step to pressurise the non-wheelchair user to vacate the space, depending on the circumstances.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which supported Mr Paulley at the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, described the latest decision in the case as "a victory for disabled people's rights" and "a hugely important decision, which has helped clarify the current state of the law, and will give confidence to thousands of disabled people in Britain to use public transport".

Chairman David Isaac said: "Public transport is essential for disabled people to live independently, yet bus companies have not made it easy for this to happen.

"This is a victory for disabled people's rights. The success of this case means bus companies will have to end 'first come, first served' policies, increasing peace of mind for disabled people.

"This has been about correcting a confusing policy which has caused untold problems for disabled people.

"For years, wheelchair users have been deterred from using vital public transport links because they could not be sure they will be able to get on. Today's judgment will make that easier."

He said the court had suggested that the law should be reconsidered in order to provide much-needed clarity for bus companies and their customers, and that the commission "will be pressing the Government to commit to these changes in the Bus Services Bill".

Richard Lane, head of communications at disability charity Scope, said: "This is an important milestone. It's a victory for common sense, and disabled customers will now want to see action from travel companies.

"Wheelchair spaces on buses exist because of a sustained campaign by disabled people. But today many wheelchair users still face difficulties accessing the spaces on buses, often causing a great deal of distress.

"Most people don't realise just how difficult it is for disabled people to get around, to get to the shops, or to visit friends. These spaces are often a lifeline into work and the local community.

"This ruling sends a clear message to transport providers right across the country that they have a responsibility to make travel easier and more comfortable for all of their customers."

As other wheelchair users and disabled people cheered him outside the court, Mr Paulley said: "I am absolutely delighted. It has been a long fight."

He added that the judgment marked "a significant cultural change".

Minister for Disabled People, Work and Health Penny Mordaunt said: "This is an important and welcome ruling by the Supreme Court.

"They have recognised the duty of transport providers to ensure that their disabled passengers are able to travel.

"It is clear that it should not just be up to the disabled passenger to get a person to move out of the space, but the transport provider too.

"I'll be talking to the Department for Transport about clarity, good practice and the powers of transport providers to ensure this ruling becomes a reality.

"Being able to get around is vital to living independently and this is a huge step in the right direction."

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2017, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Yui Mok / PA Wire.