A campaigning disabled woman who found herself trapped on a pavement by café furniture has forced her local council to rewrite its “ludicrous” and unlawful licensing policy after a successful legal action.
Flick Williams, a visually-impaired powerchair-user, left a shoe shop in York last May to find that tables and chairs were blocking her exit in both directions.
The two businesses had been given permission to block the pavement with their furniture by City of York Council, even though this was in breach of government guidance introduced during the pandemic.
The guidance says cafes can only be licensed to use pavements if they leave at least 1.5 metres space for pedestrians to pass by.
Williams launched a legal action through the county court, alleging discrimination under the Equality Act.
Now the council has conceded defeat and has agreed to pay her legal costs and compensation, as well as amending its licensing policy.
Williams has told Disability News Service that she believes other local authorities have introduced similar unlawful policies, and she has advised activists in other parts of the country how to challenge their local authorities.
The “extremely distressing” incident took place in May 2022.
After spending about half an hour inside a shoe shop, Williams came out to find that tables and chairs had been put out by the two neighbouring businesses, blocking the pavement in both directions.
The high kerb meant the medically-retired disability equality trainer and access consultant had no exit route and had to shout for help.
But when some young passers-by started to move some of the furniture onto the road for her, the landlord of one of the businesses came running out to challenge them.
He told Williams the council had given him permission to block the pavement with his tables and chairs, but he eventually apologised after she explained her situation.
She said: “That’s what I found so upsetting about the whole event; it put me directly in conflict with this business owner who is standing over me in the pavement, shouting, ‘I’ve got a license, the council lets me do this.’
“I’m very calmly saying, ‘I don’t doubt it for one minute, but you can see the problem. I am trapped on this pavement,’ and he looked at the kerb and looked at me and back again and kind of said, ‘I’m kind of sorry,’ in a not very sorry sort of a way, and moved the furniture enough to let me get past.
“I hate the word ‘vulnerable’, most of us do, but it just put me in a very vulnerable situation.”
Despite her repeated attempts to persuade the council to change its policy, it refused to do so, and Williams was forced to begin a county court action.
She said: “I tried the nice way, I wrote emails and letters and they just tried to justify what they were doing.
“I didn’t file with the court until September, so it really was a last resort.
“It was very clearly unlawful, and I thought I didn’t really have a choice.
“As someone who has been disabled since before we even had legislation to protect us from discrimination, I decided that I must use this hard-fought-for legislation to try to rectify the situation.”
The council has now settled the case out of court, introducing a new policy and paying her costs and compensation.
Williams said the new policy seems to be working so far.
She said: “There is a very noticeable difference. I am quite sure that when the weather improves, we will see some more infractions.
“All the disability groups within York have been circulating the information about how to report infractions because we feel that if cafes are breaching the new policy then they need to be reported quickly because otherwise the whole thing very quickly gets out of hand.
“It’s just a shame, as always, that we had to get there the hard way. If they had listened to us properly in the first place, none of it would have been necessary.”
Williams also plays a leading role in the Reverse the Ban coalition of 27 groups who continue to push City of York Council to reverse its decision to ban the vehicles of blue badge-holders from the historic city centre.
She said: “It is noticeably making a positive difference for disabled people who can still actually get to the city centre, despite the blue badge ban, and that fight continues.”
The council had refused to apologise or explain its actions by noon today (Thursday), or say why it breached the government guidance, or clarify its new policy.
Picture: Flick Williams holds the legal “letter before action” she sent City of York Council
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