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Buggy vs Wheelchair: Do you want to play “stop the bus?”

Have you ever noticed the signs on public transport reading “Please give up this seat if it is required by an elderly or disabled person”? For many years, I thought it was a polite request. Considering the recent decision by the Supreme Court in First Group plc v Paulley, such a notice is no longer a polite request, but a legal obligation.

The facts of the case

Mr. Paulley wished to travel across town on a bus operated by First Group to visit his parents. The wheelchair space was occupied by a sleeping child in a buggy. The driver asked the child’s mother to give up the seat but she refused. The driver did nothing further. Mr. Paulley was unable to use that bus and arrived an hour later than intended at his parents’ house.

He sued in the County Court for Disability Discrimination and was awarded £5,500 in damages. FirstGroup successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal in 2014. Mr. Paulley then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court: should the driver have insisted on the wheelchair space being given up by a non-disabled passenger?

The Supreme Court were not prepared to accept the argument that the driver should have insisted on the wheelchair space being given up by a non-disabled passenger. It accepted that First Group’s Drivers had to do more than just ask a non-disabled passenger to move. It held that the duty to make reasonable adjustments indicates a policy of “require and pressurise”.

The conclusion – the driver ought to go as far as they felt reasonable in the circumstances to insist that the space was vacated.

The case has been hailed as a great success for Mr. Paulley. Indeed, Mr. Paulley has been quoted as saying “Who would have thought that five years on I would still be discussing the day I had that problem going across to see my parents for lunch?”

The implications for all businessesdon't panic

The decision will have implications for all businesses, particularly, for service providers with wheelchair spaces or facilities including supermarkets, car parks, disabled toilets on trains etc. and it will be interesting to see how the decision is interpreted by those employers.

What exactly does “require and pressurise” mean?

The indication from the decision for First Group was that drivers should refuse to travel for a few minutes. That clearly won’t be applicable for every business.

Next steps for employers

As an employer, a robust policy is necessary so that you are in a strong position if you need to discipline or dismiss an employee for not following the rules.

Consider how to implement policies so that staff know exactly what’s expected of them. Ensure your business’ reputation is protected from any unwanted complaints.

If you think disability discrimination might be an issue, or you are concerned that your policies might not protect you from any claims, then be pro-active and check those policies now.

Remember that claims can sometimes be like buses: you wait for ages for one to come along, and then three, maybe four, come along at once!

If you have any concerns about your policies or any aspect of employment law, then please contact Julie Sullivan or Robin Millar in our employment team on 01383 721 621.

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