After a hearing at Leeds County Court, Recorder Paul Isaacs decided that the “first come, first served” policy operated by First Group discriminated against disabled people under the Equality Act.
The case was taken by wheelchair-user Doug Paulley, from Wetherby, who had been planning to travel to Leeds in February last year, but was prevented from entering the bus because the driver refused to insist that a mother with a pushchair should move from the wheelchair-space.
Isaacs concluded in his written judgment that it was reasonable that “the system of priority given to wheelchair-users should be enforced as a matter not of request, to any non-disabled user of the wheelchair space, but of requirement”.
And he added: “Although such a policy might inconvenience a mother with a buggy that, I am afraid, is a consequence of the protection which parliament has chosen to give to disabled wheelchair-users and not to non-disabled mothers with buggies.”
First Group has now been given six months to act on the judgment.
The case should force other bus, train and tram companies that operate similar “first come, first served” policies to take action, and provides a legal precedent for many other disabled bus passengers who have faced such discrimination.
Paulley said: “The number one problem for wheelchair-users on public transport is whether the wheelchair bay is free. Often it’s filled up with luggage or buggies.
“Often bus companies advertise the space as a buggy space, which can create confusion as to who has priority for it.
“But the space is there for wheelchair-users to travel. It’s the only place on the bus I can travel safely in my wheelchair.”
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson said she believed the decision would “drive the changes that are needed to make public transport accessible for all disabled users”.
A First Group spokesman said: “We are disappointed in the judgment and will take time to consider the findings.”
He claimed that the company recognised “how important it is that bus services are accessible to all and our drivers across the country are trained to act in accordance with the law in this area”.
Meanwhile, the lawyers who secured the court victory have launched their new Equal Justice campaign, which is warning that disabled people will now find it almost impossible to take such cases under the Equality Act.
They say that cuts to legal aid and reforms to the way legal costs are dealt with by the courts in civil cases mean that someone like Paulley, who was awarded £5,500 compensation by the court, would instead have found himself thousands of pounds out of pocket.
The campaign is backed by three leading disabled figures: Baroness Grey-Thompson; the actor, dancer and comedian Kiruna Stamell, and the campaigning peer Lord [Colin] Low.
Stamell said she feared the law was “in danger of becoming almost as inaccessible to disabled people as the services that, sadly, regularly create so much disadvantage”.
Chris Fry, managing partner at Unity Law, which is leading the campaign, said that much of the progress made in improving access for disabled people had only come about “because of disability discrimination legislation which created the risk of a financial penalty to the organisations refusing to comply”.
He said that the government’s legal reforms, which were introduced on 1 April 2013, would now make it harder for disabled people to secure such progress.
26 September 2013