The law states that public service providers must not discriminate against anyone in relation to the terms on which they provide a service to a user. In FirstGroup Plc v Paulley, the Supreme Court held that the bus operating company had not made reasonable adjustments to avoid disadvantaging passengers who were wheelchair users, in breach of the Equality Act 2010.
Mr Paulley, a wheelchair user, tried to board a bus operated by FirstGroup in February 2012. The bus had a space marked by a wheelchair sign and a notice saying, “Please give up this space for a wheelchair user”. At the time that Mr Paulley tried to board the bus, the space was occupied by a sleeping child in a pushchair. The driver asked the mother to fold down the chair and move, but she refused, stating that it did not fold down. As a result, Mr Paulley had to wait for the next bus.
He issued proceedings against FirstGroup in the county court claiming that the company had failed to make “reasonable adjustments” contrary to section 29(7) of the Equality Act 2010.
Decisions of lower courts
The County Court judge held that FirstGroup operated a provision criterion or practice consisting of a policy of ‘first come first served’, whereby a non-wheelchair user occupying the space on the bus would be requested to move, but if the request was refused nothing more would be done.
This placed Mr Paulley and other wheelchair users at a substantial disadvantage by comparison with non-disabled passengers. FirstGroup could have made reasonable adjustments consisting of requiring a non-disabled passenger occupying a wheelchair space to move if a wheelchair user needed it and requiring non-disabled passengers to leave the bus if they refused to comply. Mr Paulley was awarded £5,500 damages.
The Court of Appeal allowed First Group’s appeal, holding that it was not reasonable to expect the company to adjust its policy so that drivers had to require non-wheelchair users to vacate a space when it was needed by a person in a wheelchair, and then to positively enforce that requirement with the ultimate sanction of being removed from the bus.
Supreme Court decision
The Supreme Court however allowed Mr Paulley’s appeal to the extent that the company had breached the duty to make reasonable adjustments. It was not enough for FirstGroup just to instruct its drivers to request non-wheelchair users to vacate the space but then take no further action if the request was rejected.
If a driver concluded that the refusal was unreasonable, it was not justifiable for FirstGroup to have a policy that required them to take no further steps in any circumstances. In that event, drivers should consider doing something else to pressurise the non-wheelchair user to move, such as rephrasing the request as a requirement, especially where the non-wheelchair user could move elsewhere in the bus.
Notwithstanding this, a majority of the Court decided that an absolute rule that a non-wheelchair user must vacate the space if it was required by a wheelchair user would be unreasonable and enforcement of such a rule would be likely to lead to confrontation and delay.
The judgment does not require bus operators to remove those who refuse to move from a space designated for wheelchair users but it does require them to do more than make a single request that they vacate the space in question. The steps they will be expected to take will vary depending on the specific situation that exists.