Bus wheelchair space case makes history at Supreme Court

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A disabled activist was at the Supreme Court yesterday as judges heard his ground-breaking case that could finally force bus companies to ensure that wheelchair-users can use the spaces reserved for them.

Doug Paulley’s long-running case is the first the Supreme Court has heard concerning disability discrimination in the provision of services.

The importance of the case was underlined by the presence of both the president and the deputy president of the Supreme Court on a panel of seven judges.

And its significance was also marked by the attendance among observers of Liberal Democrat president Baroness [Sal] Brinton and crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, both wheelchair-users, as well as Green party leadership candidate Jonathan Bartley.

A ruling on the case is expected before the end of the year.

Paulley (pictured), from Wetherby, Yorkshire, originally took legal action after he was denied access to a bus operated by the company First Bus in February 2012, because the wheelchair space was occupied by a mother with a pushchair and the driver refused to force her to move.

His appeal has been funded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which told the court that bus companies must ensure that wheelchair-users have priority in using wheelchair spaces and that they must end their “first come, first served” policies.

Paulley originally won his county court case against First Bus in 2013 but that ruling was overturned by the court of appeal the following year – a decision which left disabled campaigners “frustrated” and “appalled” – so he took it to the Supreme Court.

Paulley said before the hearing: “It’s not right that I, and other wheelchair-users, should be nervously looking to see if anybody is in the wheelchair space and wondering what will happen. This can cause a great deal of distress.

“Wheelchair spaces are the only place on the bus that wheelchair-users can travel in; if they aren’t available, wheelchair-users can’t travel.

“This is the single biggest barrier experienced by wheelchair-users when accessing transport, and most wheelchair-users experience this.

“Bus companies need to have clear policies so that we can have a culture where non-disabled people automatically move to other areas.

“More needs to be done to ensure that this space is available to wheelchair-users when needed.”

After the hearing, Paulley told Disability News Service that being involved in such a ground-breaking case felt “weird”, as there was nothing for him to do but watch his “excellent” barristers at work.

He said: “It has happened around me and I get a load of credit but it is really great to have such a high-profile case, as long as we get what we want out of it.”

Even if he loses, he said, the case will still have an impact, because it will show that the Equality Act has “major flaws around enforcement and is effectively unusable”.

He said: “Either way it will hopefully make a change and certainly it has grabbed the public’s attention and people are more aware of disabled people’s right to transport.”

Paulley paid tribute to the disabled people, including many wheelchair-users, who packed out the court-room and had earlier staged a rally outside the building.

He said he was “incredibly lucky to have such a principled and supportive group of people behind this case”, and also thanked the user-led campaigning organisations Transport for All and Trailblazers for their “incredible support”.

Chris Fry, Paulley’s solicitor, from discrimination law experts Unity Law, said: “Unity Law has been proud to support Doug on this case since 2012, and shared his ups and downs throughout this legal process.

“We hope that the Supreme Court will finally make the correct legal and moral decision that supports the overriding objective of social inclusion for disabled people, and find in favour of Doug.”

Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC’s chief executive, said that “priority should mean priority”, and added: “We are saying that bus companies must uphold their responsibility and make it very clear to travellers that those spaces are intended for wheelchairs.”

Giles Fearnley, managing director of First Bus, said: “The previous judgment of the court of appeal gave much needed clarification around the priority use of the wheelchair space on board buses, following two previous conflicting rulings.  

“We hope that the judgment of the Supreme Court will maintain that clarity for our customers, drivers and the wider industry.

“We believe that our current policy, which is to ask other customers in the strongest polite terms to make way for a passenger in a wheelchair who needs the space, is the most feasible solution.”

Fearnley claimed that First Bus was “leading the industry” in improving bus travel for disabled passengers. 

Transport for All (TfA), which has supported Paulley in his case, marked the Supreme Court hearing by releasing case studies of 12 disabled and older Londoners who struggle to access buses every day.

One of them, Jeff Harvey, a TfA trustee, said: “Every time I try to board a bus, I feel stressed because I have to be ready for an argument with the driver and/or other passengers, ready to try to raise my voice enough to be heard from the pavement and get my mobile phone camera ready to take photos of the registration plate if I need to make a complaint.”

Mark Wilson, who frequently uses buses both in the north-west of England and in London, told TfA: “I have been left at bus stops many, many times because there was a parent with a child’s buggy using the wheelchair space and they would not move, and the driver felt unable to ask them, let alone compel them, to move.”

Another TfA trustee, Alan Benson, said: “London has one of the most accessible bus fleets in the country, yet it is still a lottery whether I will get to where I’m going.

“Every week I’m stymied by ramps that are broken or too steep, drivers who don’t stop, or worse, don’t let me off, and by parents with buggies who are unwilling to free up the wheelchair space.

“Each time I had a problem on buses I used to complain to Transport for London, but it didn’t seem to change anything and it happens so often I don’t bother anymore.”

Faryal Velmi, director of Transport for All, said: “It is vital that wheelchair-users and also mobility scooter-users get access to the wheelchair priority space on buses.

“Wheelchair and mobility scooter-users are heavily dependent on buses to get around London because so few Tube stations have step-free access.”

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