Campaigners will be outside the Royal Courts of Justice this week for the start of an appeal which should finally provide a definitive ruling on disabled people’s right to access wheelchair spaces on buses.
The case is being brought by First Bus, which is appealing against a county court judgment that wheelchair-users should have priority over other bus-users in wheelchair spaces.
The court found that First Bus’s “first come, first served” policy had breached the Equality Act.
That case was taken by wheelchair-user Doug Paulley, from Wetherby, who had been planning to travel to Leeds in February 2012, 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.
Recorder Paul Isaacs concluded in his written judgment in September 2013 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”.
Now First Bus is bidding to overturn that ruling in the court of appeal.
Paulley said he had “absolutely no idea” why First Bus was appealing such an “important” case for disabled people.
He said: “I don’t understand why they are appealing and frankly I think it is ridiculous.”
He added: “Back in the 1990s, disabled people chained themselves to the front of buses, as they campaigned tirelessly for the right to access those buses.”
Paulley has only been able to defend the appeal because the Equality and Human Rights Commission stepped in to cover his costs because of the case’s importance and significance for disabled people.
Chris Fry, managing partner of Unity Law, which is representing Paulley, questioned why First Group was appealing.
He said: “There’s no point in having an accessible space on a bus, if it is itself inaccessible. It makes a mockery of the protection provided to disabled service-users by the Equality Act.”
A First Bus spokesman said that its policy was for wheelchair-users to have priority use of the wheelchair space, but that its drivers “have no actual power to require people to vacate this space”.
He said that drivers were “trained to act in accordance with our policy in this area, which is to ask in the strongest polite terms to make way for the wheelchair-user, which the driver did in the Paulley case”.
He added: “A previous court decision on very similar facts decided that this approach was correct. There is therefore real uncertainty in law as to our obligations.
“We have decided to appeal to resolve this uncertainty and as we do not think last year’s judgment took into account the needs of all other customers who have a legitimate reason to use that space. We believe the appeal raises important issues for the wider industry.”
Disabled people’s organisations are hoping that protesters will support Paulley by attending a demonstration outside the Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand, London, on Tuesday (11 November), from 9.15am.
Transport for All, which is encouraging its members to attend the demonstration, said: “If Doug wins, it will set an important precedent and show bus companies across the UK that wheelchair-users have a right to the wheelchair bay – a right protected in law.
“A strong, supportive presence outside the court will show First Bus that disabled people everywhere are standing up for our right to ride.”
The hearing is likely to last two or three days – with a judgment expected to be issued at a later date – and a ruling in favour of Paulley should force other bus, train and tram companies to scrap their “first come, first served” policies.
5 November 2014