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Supreme Court rules on wheelchair policy for buses


The Supreme Court handed down judgment today in Paulley v FirstGroup plc [2017] UKSC 4 in relation to the requirements for a bus company’s wheelchair policy under the Equality Act 2010 (the “2010 Act”). The 2010 Act requires that, to the extent that any operator of public service vehicles has a policy, criterion or practice that causes substantial disadvantage to those with disabilities, it must make “reasonable adjustments” to that policy in order to ameliorate the disadvantage.

FirstGroup’s wheelchair use policy provided that, if the wheelchair space in its buses was occupied by someone who was not using a wheelchair, the driver would request the person to move. If the person refused to move, however, the policy did not prescribe any further action.

Mr Paulley is a wheelchair user who was unable to board one of FirstGroup’s buses when a woman with a sleeping baby in a pushchair refused to move from the wheelchair space, following the driver’s request that she do so. He contended that FirstGroup’s policy was inadequate, because the woman should have been required to move, even if that meant ejecting her from the bus. He was successful at first instance, and was awarded damages. However, FirstGroup’s policy was then upheld by the Court of Appeal. Mr Paulley appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court (Lord Neuberger, Lord Toulson and Lord Sumption giving separate concurring judgments) held that Mr Paulley’s suggested policy was neither reasonable nor required by the 2010 Act. The person using the wheelchair space may have a legitimate need for it. Further, the driver had no power to eject a customer if they refused to move from the wheelchair space (especially where their use of it was reasonable), and a policy requiring such an outcome would cause confrontation and delay. Nevertheless, the Court considered that it was reasonable for it to consider other potential adjustments, even though these had not been relied upon by Mr Paulley before the Court of Appeal. Thus, if there was space on the bus for the person to move to, the Court considered that FirstGroup should do more than merely request the person in the space to move, and that its policy should be adjusted so that (a) the driver re-phrases a polite request as a requirement and (b) especially where the bus is ahead of schedule, the driver should consider stopping the bus for a few minutes to pressure or shame the recalcitrant non-wheelchair user to move.

The appeal was therefore allowed on this limited basis. However because Mr Paulley could not show that this change in policy would have made any difference to his particular position, the Court did not reinstate his award of damages. 

The judgment is here.

Martin Chamberlain QC and Oliver Jones appeared for FirstGroup plc