The Court of Appeal has dismissed a claim of disability discrimination brought by 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. The Court of Appeal’s decision makes it clear that, when applying the Equality Act 2010, the interests of disabled service users do not take priority over the interests of other users, all of which must be weighed in the balance in deciding whether an adjustment is reasonable. 

The original county court decision

A County Court Judge originally upheld the claimant’s claim, ruling that the bus company had failed to make reasonable adjustments to reduce or eliminate the disadvantage faced by the claimant because of his disability.  Although the bus company had a policy of  asking a non-wheelchair user to vacate the wheelchair space if a wheelchair user wants to occupy it, the Judge felt this did not go far enough. In his view, the bus company should have changed its conditions of carriage to require (not just ask) a non-wheelchair user occupying a wheelchair space to move (and if there were no other spaces available, leave the bus) if a wheelchair user needed the space, coupling this with an enforcement policy to deal with those who refused to comply.

The bus company’s appeal

On appeal the Court of Appeal ruled that the adjustment sought by the claimant, and approved by the County Court Judge, was not a reasonable one. 

One of the reasons for this conclusion was that, even if the bus company changed its conditions of carriage, it would still have no legal power to eject passengers from the bus to make room for others: if a passenger refused to leave when asked, one could not expect the driver to manhandle them off the bus.

Even if the bus company could do something to force one passenger to make room for another, the Court of Appeal concluded that it would not be reasonable to require the bus company to give priority to a wheelchair user in every case where a passenger is already using the space, without any regard to the needs and interests of that other passenger. The adjustment sought by the claimant would require passengers to be turned off the bus even if they have a pressing need to take that particular bus (eg to catch a train, or to keep a doctor's appointment) and even if the wheelchair user was in no particular hurry. Furthermore, the Court of Appeal noted that if a non-wheelchair user is required to leave the bus, he or she may be left in an unfamiliar location and since such a passenger may also be disabled (eg blind), the extent of the disruption may be extreme, whereas for the wheelchair user waiting at the bus stop the likelihood is that he or she will at least be in a location that is familiar to him. Nor, the Court of Appeal ruled, is it reasonable to expect a bus driver to adjudicate between competing claims to the wheelchair space.

For these reasons, the Court of Appeal upheld the bus company’s appeal.  However, in so doing, one of the Court’s judges suggested various other steps that a public transport operator might be expected to take, short of compelling every passenger in every case to vacate a wheelchair space. These steps included: providing training for bus drivers and devising strategies that they can adopt to persuade people to clear the wheelchair space when needed (including asking someone-firmly-to move and possibly declining, for a short while, to drive on until someone moves out of the wheelchair space); having an awareness campaign and putting up notices designed to make other passengers more aware of the needs of wheelchair users; and conducting surveys to find out when people are likely to travel and what their needs are so that it can do what it can to provide an appropriate number of buses for everyone.  Although this part of the Court of Appeal’s judgment is not legally binding, it does give operators of public transport services an idea of the sort of steps they might be expected to take to ensure they are complying with their duties under the Equality Act 2010.

FirstGroup PLC v Paulley [2014] EWCA Civ 1573, 8 December 2014