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Supreme Court upholds wheelchair user's claim against bus company

  • United Kingdom
  • Employment law


The Supreme Court has ruled that a bus company discriminated against a wheelchair user who was unable to travel on a bus because the designated wheelchair space was already occupied by a passenger with a child in a buggy who was not willing to move.

In reaching its decision in the case of Paulley v First Group, the Court overturned the Court of Appeal’s 2015 decision that there had been no discrimination. Nevertheless, the claim did not meet with unqualified success.

The claimant’s representatives had argued that First Group should have had a rule requiring non-wheelchair users who are already occupying a wheelchair space to vacate it to make way for a wheelchair-user. That was not accepted by the majority of the panel of judges hearing the Supreme Court case, who felt that was not a reasonable adjustment to expect the company to have to make.

The Court did accept, however, that FirstGroup’s policy of requiring a driver to simply request a non-wheelchair user to vacate the wheelchair space without taking any further steps did not go far enough. The Court concluded that where a driver who has made such a request concludes that a refusal is unreasonable, he or she should consider some further step to pressurise the non-wheelchair user to vacate the space, depending on the circumstances.

The judgment leaves some uncertainty as to the steps drivers are expected to take to ‘pressure’ a passenger to move. One suggestion was that a driver might be expected to refuse to drive on until the passenger who is perceived to be ‘blocking’ a wheelchair space unreasonably agrees to move, although there is also a recognition in the judgment that this may not always be feasible, particularly if it results in a ‘stand-off’.

In practice, it would be sensible for transport providers to adopt a protocol for drivers to follow if they encounter this kind of situation, accompanied by training so that drivers know what is expected of them and are equipped with the skills to deal with difficult situations.

Paulley v FirstGroup Plc, 18 January 2017, Supreme Court