Family could lose home after theme park pursues discrimination case costs


newslatestA disabled man who lost a discrimination case against a theme park due to a legal loophole is now at risk of losing the family home because the company is insisting on recovering its legal costs.

Paul and his wife Belinda, from Kilmarnock, Scotland, had been planning to enjoy lunch with their four children at The Coach House, a pub run by the Flamingo Land theme park in Yorkshire, where they were spending a week’s holiday in July 2010, paid for by a children’s charity.

One of their daughters, Melissa, who has Down’s syndrome and autism, struggles with crowds, and Paul is blind and uses a guide dog, so they chose a picnic table a few feet outside the restaurant’s own seating area, but also owned by Flamingo Land.

Despite both Belinda and Paul explaining that they had two disabled children, a member of bar staff and the pub manager both refused them permission to eat at the picnic table.

Paul lodged a complaint, but when the company that runs the park refused to back down, he launched a legal claim under the Disability Discrimination Act for its failure to make a reasonable adjustment.

Although Carlisle county court rejected claims of disability discrimination from Paul and his daughter Isla, who has cystic fibrosis, it awarded Melissa £4,000 damages.

But Flamingo Land appealed, and won, and was successful again last year when Paul took the case to the court of appeal, even though he and his family had secured the support of the specialist discrimination law experts Unity Law and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The appeal court found that the restaurant did not have to allow the Edwards family to eat their meal in the picnic area, because – even though that might have been a reasonable adjustment – it would have meant they were asking for a takeaway, rather than restaurant service.

Flamingo Land is now pushing Paul to pay its £6,000 court costs from the original county court case.

Unable to pay these costs, Paul has been presented with a summons from two sheriff officers – who enforce court orders in Scotland – which warns that if he does not pay the £6,000 in the next fortnight, he could lose his home.

Paul said he did not believe justice had been served.

He said: “What began as a much-needed family holiday in the summer of 2010 has ended with the threat of being made homeless.”

He said he found it “absolutely incomprehensible” that Flamingo Land could have been “so insensitive to our family’s needs “, and then “to add insult to injury, pursue us for the costs set by [the county court judge], which we can ill afford”.

Chris Fry, Unity Law’s managing partner, said the court of appeal ruling had been “roundly criticised by legal commentators, and ignores [the fact]that Flamingo Land owned the restaurant and the seating area that the food was requested to be taken to”.

Fry said: “Whilst it is clear that Flamingo Land are entitled to be reimbursed for those legal fees, we would have expected a reasonable approach to have been to engage with him to find out how that could be done without causing severe financial hardship to their family.”

But he said that none of that had been done, while Flamingo Land had failed to tell Unity Law that it was planning to enforce the court order for costs and had then arranged, without notice, “for a bailiff to attend with an order to take away the family’s television and furniture”.

Fry said: “This was test litigation supported by the EHRC and one of the leading equality QCs in the country.

“No one should be punished for taking proper points at court, especially those relating to such socially important legislation.”

A Flamingo Land spokeswoman said there had also been “positive commentaries” on the court of appeal’s findings by legal experts, and added: “The company is unaware of the claimant’s personal financial circumstances but had to defend this disability discrimination claim to protect our reputation and standing within the industry.

“This could have been avoided simply by the claimant moving to an available table within our restaurant venue’s service area rather than insisting on being served some distance away on a picnic table.

“The claimant’s request for service away from our licensed premises was against our health and safety guidelines and therefore unreasonable, and unhygienic from a food standards point of view.”

She said that Flamingo Land “has won both of the appeals in regard to this case and resent the suggestion that the company has done anything wrong”.

She said: “The claimant could have stopped this claim at any stage and one would have presumed that they had considered their personal financial position before gambling on a favourable outcome.”

An EHRC spokesman said it had paid Edwards’ court of appeal costs, but added: “We have no knowledge of the costs position in relation to the county court proceedings, at first instance and on appeal, as we did not assist Mr Edwards in them.”

EHRC refused to comment when asked about the situation Paul Edwards finds himself in, and about the ruling itself.

16 October 2014