On 18th January 2017 the Supreme Court handed down judgment in a case which had been ongoing for some 5 years in respect of the extent of the duties of Public Transport providers to wheel chair users in accessing their services.
In 2012, Mr Paulley attempted to take a bus operated by First Group PLC. He was refused access to the service on the basis that a lady with a child asleep in a pram was occupying the designated wheelchair space and had refused to vacate upon request by the bus driver. In accordance with the service provider’s policy, the bus driver did not pursue the matter further with the female passenger and advised Mr Paulley that he would be required to wait for the next bus. This resulted in Mr Paulley having to wait for 20 minutes to take the next bus and him therefore missing a train which he had been scheduled to catch.
Mr Paulley brought a discrimination claim against the bus company in the Leeds County Court. The basis of the claim was that his rights as a protected person by virtue of his disability as set out in the Equality Act 2010 had not been properly enforced in the circumstances. It was held that the bus company had indirectly discriminated against Mr Paulley as a result of their policy not to enforce the use of the space allocated for wheelchair users in the course of the provision of their service. The Judge was of the view that the bus driver should have been allowed to insist that the lady vacate the space and upon refusal, ultimately eject her from the bus. Mr Paulley was also awarded £5,500 by way of damages.
Upon appeal, the Court of Appeal overturned the original decision. Primarily the Court of Appeal considered that pre-existing conduct regulations and guidance did not provide for such enforcement by a bus driver in these circumstances.
Mr Paulley appealed the decision further. Upon detailed consideration, the Supreme Court ruled that the decision of the Judge at First Instance may have ‘gone too far’ in its insistence that Mr Paulley, as a wheelchair user should have been given priority to the allocated wheelchair space, to the extent that the existing passenger, could have been ejected from the bus. This was primarily due to the fact that there are varied circumstances where individuals, who are not wheelchair users but are vulnerable individuals and/or disabled would be entitled to occupy the designated space. In these circumstances, it would not be reasonable to insist that they vacate and/or be ejected from the service for a wheelchair user attempting to access the service, during their journey. However, First Group PLC’s policy of ‘first come first served’ regardless of priority need upon the refusal of the lady to vacate the space and; no requirement for this to be pursued with the passenger did place Mr Paulley at a disadvantage, as a result of his disability. As such, the Court held that Mr Paulley had been subjected to discrimination and that the policy should provide for bus drivers to have the autonomy to determine whether an individual was able to ‘reasonably and readily’ vacate the space and therefore accommodate the wheelchair user’s needs and right to access the service. It was stated that in circumstances where a bus driver is of the view that a refusal to vacate the relevant space is unreasonable the matter should be pursued further with a view to encouraging an individual to comply.
Following the Judgment having been published there has been much contentious discussion as to the relevance of the Supreme Court’s decision.
The Judgment is considered by some as only a partial victory for Mr Paulley and the rights of wheelchair users in society. This is on the basis that the Supreme Court has failed to go as far as to prioritise the needs of wheelchair users accessing public transport services, over all others.
However in the alternative, others are of the view that the decision is one of landmark proportions in that it has considered and highlighted the plight of disabled members of the community in such circumstances as a whole.
Regardless of the differing opinions voiced as to the significance of this Judgment, it has clearly, through extensive media coverage, raised awareness and potentially reflection as to the approaches taken toward the disabled and the protection intended to be afforded to them by virtue of the Equality Act 2010.
This will no doubt result in the review of similar policies implemented by providers of all manner of services across the board and could also prompt the reconsideration of attitudes and actions in such circumstances by individual members of the public, going forward.
If you feel that any of the above is relevant to you or you have been subjected to discrimination due to a disability please get in touch with our specialist discrimination team for advice and assistance.