'Significant' victory for disabled in 'wheelchair v buggy' bus space case

Disabled travellers have claimed a "significant" victory at the Supreme Court in a battle for priority use of wheelchair spaces on buses.

The ruling means that bus drivers will have to do more to ensure wheelchair users can get on buses, by pressuring non-wheelchair users to move from the designated wheelchair space.

The court ruled that bus operator FirstGroup's policy of requiring a driver to simply request a non-wheelchair user to vacate the space without taking any further steps was unjustified.

Lord Neuberger, the Supreme Court's president, said that if non-wheelchair user's unreasonably refused the request, the driver should consider further action to pressure the non-wheelchair user to vacate the space, depending on the circumstances.

Following the decision, wheelchair user Doug Paulley, who brought the case, said he was "absolutely delighted" and that the judgment marked "a significant cultural change".

The case began when Mr Paulley attempted to board a FirstGroup-operated bus but was left at the bus stop after a woman with a sleeping baby in a pram refused to move from the wheelchair area.

When he tried to get on the bus, which had a sign that read "please give up this space if needed for a wheelchair user", the woman insisted she could not fold the buggy, and did not move even when asked to by the driver.

FirstGroup's policy is "requesting but not requiring" other non-disabled passengers to move - a policy that Mr Paulley and his representatives argued breaches the Equality Act.

A judge at Leeds Crown Court ruled the policy did not make "reasonable adjustments", which is required under the Equality Act, and awarded Mr Paulley £5,500 in damages.

The ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal, because the policy did not strike a balance between the needs of wheelchair users and other passengers who are vulnerable.

The policy would also lead to an increase in confrontations and cause delays, the Court of Appeal said.

On Wednesday, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which supported Mr Paulley at the court cases, described the Supreme Court ruling as "a victory for disabled people's rights" and "a hugely important decision".

Chairman David Isaac said: "Public transport is essential for disabled people to live independently, yet bus companies have not made it easy for this to happen.

"The success of this case means bus companies will have to end 'first come, first served' policies, increasing peace of mind for disabled people.

"For years, wheelchair users have been deterred from using vital public transport links because they could not be sure they will be able to get on. Today's judgment will make that easier."

Doug Paulley leaves court following the ruling. Credit: PA

Richard Lane, head of communications at disability charity Scope, said: "This is an important milestone. It's a victory for common sense, and disabled customers will now want to see action from travel companies.

"Most people don't realise just how difficult it is for disabled people to get around, to get to the shops, or to visit friends. These spaces are often a lifeline into work and the local community.

"This ruling sends a clear message to transport providers right across the country that they have a responsibility to make travel easier and more comfortable for all of their customers."