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Supreme Court: Wheelchairs beat prams in legal dispute over space on the 99 bus

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Seven justices unanimously allowed the appeal, but only to a limited extent

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The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the disabled appellant in a long-running dispute over whether wheelchairs or pushchairs take priority when there is limited space on the bus.

Today’s judgment stems from a claim brought by Doug Paulley, a disability rights activist.

In 2012, the 38-year-old arrived at a bus station to board the 99 bus to Leeds, operated by FirstGroup. However, he was unable to ride because a woman with a pushchair was occupying the wheelchair space. Complying with company policy, the bus driver asked her to move. When she refused, 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.

The justices in court this morning
The justices in court this morning

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 ruling in December 2014. The original judgment, the three judges found, suggests bus drivers are legally bound to eject passengers who don’t move from the designated wheelchair area. In reality, they said, this isn’t legally enforceable so it had to be overruled.

Following some intense advocacy 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, today the seven Supreme Court justices gave their judgment. They unanimously allowed the appeal, but only to a limited extent.

In a summary read out in court this morning by Lord Neuberger, the judges noted the Court of Appeal was correct to conclude FirstGroup could not have a policy which would mean non-wheelchair users must leave the bus. There are a number of reasons why a non-wheechair user might not be able to vacate the wheelchair space, let alone exit the bus.

However, the Supreme Court agreed with Paulley’s submissions that FirstGroup’s policy should have gone further than it did. It isn’t enough for drivers to simply request non-wheelchair users to vacate the space. The court advocated a case-by-case approach, stating that when refusal to vacate the space is unreasonable, drivers should take further steps to pressurise non-wheelchair users to move. In this particular case, this may not have resulted in Paulley being able to catch the 9.40am bus to Leeds.

Lord Neuberger reading out a summary of the judgment
Lord Neuberger reading out a summary of the judgment

It is worth noting that Lord Clarke, Lord Kerr and Lady Hale dissented in part. They argued the first instance judgment should be reinstated, and would have awarded Paulley damages.

It is not often that Supreme Court cases — which tend to be very technical — Paulley capture the attention of the Great British public but this one certainly did. As well as a hearty comments-section debate on our first story on the matter, in Monday’s Metro Talk segment, readers jousted with the legal issues at hand.

In one, a mother wrote “I have seen wheelchair users being refused entry on buses and it has absolutely outraged me… As I see it, I chose to have my kids, whereas people don’t choose to be in wheelchairs”. Another said “This is about common decency. Disabled people should have priority to use the space because buggies can be folded and children carried”.

Taking a different stance, one reader wrote “Do people in wheelchairs expect babies to be put off the bus so they can get on?” Another quipped that nowadays “Nearly half the bus is taken up by pushchair bays… It’s not a bus anymore, it’s a mobile crèche”.

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