Supreme Court leaves disabled access in new grey area

The law governing disabled passengers’ right of access to buses is still a grey area following a Supreme Court judgment involving FirstGroup.

The case, brought originally by wheelchair user Doug Paulley followed his inability to use a First service to Leeds in 2012 when a mother with a buggy refused the driver’s request to vacate the wheelchair bay.

The Supreme Court has now ruled that drivers should take measures beyond a simple request that the wheelchair area is vacated, but does not specify what these measures might be nor is there a legal obligation on able-bodied passengers to move.

‘Where a driver who has made such a request concludes that a refusal is unreasonable, he or she should consider some further steps to pressurise the non-wheelchair user to vacate the space, depending on the circumstances, ’ says the court.

‘The court has ruled that bus drivers are not required to remove customers from vehicles, which was a key issue for us, ’ says First Bus managing director Giles Fearnley. ‘This provides welcome clarity for bus operators, our drivers and our customers.

‘We recognise how important it is that bus services are accessible for all customers and we lead the industry in improving bus travel for customers with all disabilities. We are therefore also pleased that the Supreme Court found that we did not discriminate against Mr Paulley.’

Daniel Fawcett, managing associate at law firm Bond Dickinson, says: ‘The precise steps that are reasonable for a driver to take will depend on the circumstances and may depend on another passenger’s reasons for not moving — and potentially that passenger’s behaviour. However, what is clear is that a driver will need to go beyond a single request to a customer taking up the wheelchair space.’

Bus Users UK chief executive Claire Walters says the ruling fails to provide clarity for passengers or drivers. ‘While it is now a requirement for drivers to take further steps where a reasonable request to move is refused, it is not clear what those steps should be and the driver has no legal basis on which to require a passenger to leave the bus if they refuse to move.

‘Rather than having to decide whose needs are greatest, what is actually needed are better designed buses that can accommodate the needs of the people who use them.’