Dispute on 99 bus between woman with pushchair and wheelchair user ends up in the country’s highest court

Avatar photo

By Katie King on

Should the bus driver have kicked the woman off the bus?


A wheelchair user who had to wait 15 minutes to board the next 99 bus because there wasn’t any room for him on the first one will today have his long-awaited moment in the Supreme Court.

The disabled appellant will tell the seven justices, including Lady Hale and Lords Sumption and Neuberger, that FirstGroup bus operating company unlawfully discriminated against him, in a case that will be watched with baited breath by wheelchair users across the country.

The story started in February 2012, when 38-year-old disability rights activist Doug Paulley arrived at a bus station to board the 99 bus to Leeds. A woman with a pushchair was occupying the wheelchair space, and though the bus driver asked her to move, she refused, and the driver took no further action. Paulley, who lives in a care home, had to wait about 15 minutes for the next bus and ended up missing his train. A significant event for spontaneous travel is not easy for disabled people as Paulley explains:

If you want to travel and you’ve got access problems, you’ve got to phone the transport company 24 or 48 hours ahead [to request assistance] — you can’t just turn up and go.

Paulley sued FirstGroup for unlawful discrimination and, at first instance, was awarded £5,500 in damages at Leeds County Court in August 2013.

But the Court of Appeal was having none of it, and rejected the county court ruling in December 2014. The original judgment, the three judges agreed, suggests bus drivers are legally bound to eject passengers who don’t move from the designated wheelchair area, but in reality this isn’t legally enforceable, so it had to be overruled.

sc paulley

Now — as is often the case — Neuberger and co have been left to sort out the mess. For the rest of the day, the justices will hear arguments from Cloisters Chambers’ Robin Allen QC and Catherine Casserley, for the appellant, and Martin Chamberlain QC and Oliver Jones from Brick Court Chambers for the respondent, who will debate what reasonable adjustments a bus company is required to make to accommodate wheelchair users.

In the run-up to the long-awaited case, the appellant, who has a nervous system-related condition, said:

Wheelchair spaces are the only place on the bus that wheelchair users can travel in; if they aren’t available, wheelchair users can’t travel. This is the single biggest barrier experienced by wheelchair users when accessing transport, and most wheelchair users experience this.

The hearing is scheduled to last a day, and no one’s quite sure which way it’s going to go. But — as Legal Cheek pointed out just yesterday — a seven-strong bench is often a sign the court is thinking about doing some overruling.