‘We must keep banging the drum,’ says bus campaigner after five-year fight for justice

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The disabled activist who yesterday won a ground-breaking legal victory that protects the rights of wheelchair-users to travel on buses has said he does not regret the five years he has spent fighting the case through the courts.

Doug Paulley (pictured), from Wetherby, near Leeds, said he hoped the victory over the public transport giant FirstGroup would be a “morale-booster” for disabled people across the country, who he said were living through “very dark and worrying” times.

But he warned that the barriers facing wheelchair-users travelling on buses were “not going to change overnight”.

He said the legal case had been “about achieving cultural change, which is never easy or quick, and it’s a struggle to make that happen, and hopefully what lots of people have achieved today is one step towards something approaching cultural change.

“I think it’s worth it in terms of the pressure for change and the potential for change; it has got a lot of people thinking and taking about it, which can only improve awareness.”

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday (Wednesday) that First Bus had breached its duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people under the Equality Act through its “first come, first served” policy on the use of wheelchair spaces.

It was the first case of disability discrimination in service provision to be heard by the country’s highest court.

Paulley had been planning to travel to Leeds to visit his parents in February 2012, but was prevented from entering a bus because the driver refused to insist that a mother with a sleeping child in a pushchair should move from the only wheelchair space.

After he launched a legal case for discrimination, the county court ruled that wheelchair-users should have priority in the use of dedicated wheelchair spaces, and that First Bus’s policy breached the Equality Act.

The court of appeal then over-turned that ruling and said instead that a bus driver needed only to request – and not demand – that a non-disabled passenger should vacate the space if it was needed by a wheelchair-user.

But the Supreme Court yesterday ruled unanimously that disabled passengers have a right to priority access over the wheelchair space on a bus –  although failing to award any damages to Paulley – and that a driver must do more than simply ask a non-disabled passenger to move.

The ruling should mean that bus drivers are now “required” to ask passengers blocking the space to move, said Paulley, and are then “required to ask them if they have a genuine reason for not doing so if they refuse”, and “required” to take measures to pressure them into doing so if they will still not move.

These measures should probably include refusing to drive off for several minutes, in order to shame the passenger blocking the space into moving, although the driver will not have the legal power to throw them off the bus.

Paulley said: “I think the bus industry, the public transport industry and possibly other industries too will be going away and studying this in quite some detail.

“I don’t think a lot of it is going to be overnight. I don’t think this is going to be a universal panacea.

“It would be nice if it was, but it’s a step towards it. We must keep banging the drum.”

He said he hoped the government would now make changes to clarify and strengthen the rights of wheelchair-users through the government’s bus services bill, which has just started its progress through the Commons.

Penny Mordaunt, the minister for disabled people, said on Twitter immediately after the ruling that she would now be speaking to the Department for Transport “re clarity, good practice & powers a transport operator has to ensure this ruling become a reality”.

Alan Benson, chair of London’s user-led accessible transport charity Transport for All (TfA), welcomed the judgment, although he said TfA “would have liked to see it go further and make it a requirement of the driver to get people to move or a requirement that people move when asked”.

He said he was frustrated at the lack of clarity in the judgment – which had different judgments delivered by six of the seven justices – but he said it was still “a day for celebration”.

He said: “Today it’s about the victory; tomorrow we need to look at what the next steps are.

“I think there are a lot of conversations going on this afternoon about just what it means.”

He added: “It is an incredibly difficult climate, where disabled people’s rights and freedoms are being chipped away at every day, where disabled people in society are increasingly the victims of hate crime, verbal and physical abuse.

“I think they are looking for every morale boost they can find and I think this has got to be one of them.”

Chris Fry, from Unity Law, who has represented Paulley throughout his legal battle, said the decision establishes what he called the “Paulley Principle”: that bus companies have to give priority use of the wheelchair space to disabled customers.

He said immediate changes needed to be made by First Group and other transport companies.

Baroness [Sal] Brinton, the disabled Liberal Democrat peer and party president, and herself a wheelchair-user, said: “I am delighted that Doug Paulley has won this important Supreme Court case.

“The Paulley Principle is vital to make sure that disabled travellers are not treated as second-class citizens.

“In the detail of the judgement, the Supreme Court judges say that there need to be legislative changes to make this happen, not least to give bus drivers the power to require a passenger to move. 

“Following the minister’s comments on my amendments in the bus service bill, saying he was waiting for the outcome of this case, I will now be asking him to ensure that the legislation is enacted as swiftly as possible.”

David Isaac, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which funded Paulley’s appeal, 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’ polices, increasing peace of mind for disabled people.”

Paulley paid tribute to the years of support he has received that have made the victory possible from disabled people’s organisations and individual disabled people and their allies, including Unity Law, Transport for All and the website Mumsnet, all of which had “gone out of their way to support this and make this change”.

Paulley said he did not know when he would attempt his next bus journey, following the Supreme Court ruling.

He said the incident with First Bus in 2012 had seriously knocked his confidence about travelling on buses as a wheelchair-user, and the incident still affected him.

He said: “I have various mental health issues… and that fear of confrontation does genuinely cause an issue for me, so I don’t know.”

Pictured: Doug Paulley (left) and Chris Fry in front of the Supreme Court yesterday after the ruling, surrounded by supporters from Transport for All

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