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Bus companies and other transport operators face potential rethink over disabled passengers

Providers of public transport services face a potential rethink over disabled passengers' rights following a Supreme Court ruling.

Companies will need to carefully review their policies, terms and conditions and staff training after the decision in a case involving a passenger on a FirstGroup bus in Yorkshire.

What happened?

In the case, wheelchair user Doug Paulley tried to get on a bus to Leeds at Wetherby bus station in 2012.

However, the only available wheelchair space on the bus was occupied by a mother with a pram who refused to move to make way for Mr Paulley since the pram could not be accommodated elsewhere on the bus.

The bus driver asked the mother to move but she refused and, as a result, Mr Paulley could not get on and had to wait for the next service.

Mr Paulley brought a case against FirstGroup, arguing operator FirstGroup’s “requesting, not requiring” policy of drivers asking passengers to move out of disabled spaces was discriminatory.

What did the court say?

The Supreme Court allowed his appeal, saying that the FirstGroup policy was not compliant with the Equalities Act 2010.

The Court found that FirstGroup’s policy of instructing drivers simply to request a non-wheelchair user to vacate a wheelchair space, without taking any further steps, was unjustified.

It was said that where a driver in such circumstances is faced by a refusal to move that the driver considers unreasonable, he or she should consider some further step to pressurise the non-wheelchair user to vacate the space.

However, the Court refused to award Mr Paulley damages on the grounds that it could not be shown that further driver pressure would have meant that he was able to board the bus.

What does this mean for bus companies?

It is important for bus operators to review policies, terms and conditions and driver training in the light of this ruling.

Drivers should be instructed that they should use their judgement to be more forceful in requesting non-wheelchair users to vacate wheelchair spaces in favour of wheelchair users – a policy of simply requesting someone to move is not enough.

However, there does remain a significant grey area here since the Supreme Court did not specify what further steps would be ‘reasonable’ for a driver to take when faced with such a situation, other than to say it should be appropriate to the circumstances.

Since the Court said that it could be unreasonable to force a non-wheelchair user to leave the bus, it does leave operators in a potentially difficult situation.

Legislation does back up bus operators when carrying fare paying customers, to some extent controlling their behaviour on the bus through duties that the passenger must comply with.

It is also significant that the Supreme Court declined to reinstate a damages award in favour of Mr Paulley. Operators are unlikely to be regarded in any way as guarantors of the way passengers act, provided some appropriate effort has been devoted to securing a solution to the needs of the disabled passenger.

The case does leave undisturbed the principle that a bus company would face a potential claim from a passenger if the driver forced the passenger to leave a bus for not moving out of a wheelchair space.

In that light, it is sensible for bus operators to thoroughly review their policies and procedures in this area to see if they can achieve a balance between maintaining the rights of disabled passengers and those of other bus users.

It also seems necessary to include as part of the training of staff evidence recording in the event that an issue of this kind arises – as it inevitably will do from time to time. The case has received a high profile but has not at the same time, unfortunately, produced a “one size fits all” solution.

The Department for Transport will no doubt scrutinise the judgement and may in time revisit its guidance on local transport service standards. Transport Authorities with statutory bus partnership schemes and who tender subsidised service and other socially required services will also be considering how to deal with this issue in contracts and specifications.

How can Ward Hadaway help?

We have a wealth of experience advising bus companies and other transport operators on a wide range of policies and procedures connected to their operations.

For more information on how we can assist, please get in touch.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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