A wheelchair user has won a legal ruling over a bus company’s “first come, first served” seating policy after a passenger refused to give up the priority space.
Wetherby resident Doug Paulley, 35, took First Bus Group to court after he was told he could not get on a bus because a mother did not want to move her pushchair as it would wake her baby.
The driver also refused to intervene because the company’s policy did not permit him to force a customer to give up the space.
Following a legal battle lasting 18 months, a judge sitting at Leeds County Court has ruled the incident was unlawful discrimination in breach of the Equality Act 2010 and ordered First Bus to change its policy.
Mr Paulley was awarded £5,500 in compensation and is now seeking to ensure other bus companies also change their policy.
He said: “I think public transport is a great thing and I didn’t want to sue them but I felt it was the only way to change things.
“Ultimately, I think it is very sad that sometimes it is necessary to insist that people move and it is sad that it has to fall on the bus company to take action if people refuse.
“I’m delighted that now drivers will have the power to take action if people refuse to move out of the space.”
The incident happened on the 9.40am service from Wetherby town centre to the train station in Leeds as Doug travelled to see his parents on February 24 last year.
When he approached the bus he noticed that the priority space for wheelchairs was occupied by a pushchair which contained a sleeping baby while his mother sat next to it.
“I politely asked the lady if she could fold the pushchair so I could get on and she refused,” he said.
“She said no because her baby was asleep and she didn’t want to wake it up. The driver then asked her to move but she wouldn’t.
“I didn’t challenge her and I was very polite with the driver but I was shocked by what happened.
“The driver said he couldn’t force the woman to move and so I couldn’t get on because there was no room for my wheelchair.
“I asked if I could sit on a seat and fold away my wheelchair but he said I couldn’t because it couldn’t safely be stored away.”
Doug, who volunteers at Oxfam, was forced to wait for the next bus, which meant he was late to the train station and missed his train.
He said: “The whole experience left my confidence shattered. I avoided catching a bus because I was so worried I’d be faced with the same situation.”
After his complaints to First Bus Group went unanswered, Doug decided to seek legal advice and contacted a lawyer.
Doug, who suffers from a neurological condition, said: “I didn’t want to have to take such drastic action but it seemed to be the only way to force them to take the issue seriously and to make adjustments so wheelchair users can
reliably take the bus.
“I sent emails complaining about what happened but I never heard back and I invited them to meet me and discuss the issues wheelchair users face when they catch a bus but they just ignored me.
“In my experience, it is certainly the minority of parents who behave in an unreasonable manner but the system needs to change.
“I appreciate that it must be difficult to travel on public transport with a pushchair but people need to realise that the space is put there for wheelchair users.
“It is the only place I can safely travel and my rights should be enforced.”
At the hearing last Thursday, Judge Paul Isaacs gave the company six months to change it policy.
He said: “The system of priority given to wheelchair users should be enforced as a matter not of request, to any non-disabled user of the wheelchair space, but of requirement.
“Just as there are conditions of carriage which forbid smoking, making a nuisance or other ‘anti-social’ behaviour on the pain of being asked to leave the bus then a refusal to accede to a requirement to vacate the space could have similar consequences.
“In my view, once the system had been advertised and in place there would be unlikely to be caused any disruption or confrontation as all passengers would know where they were.
“Although such a policy might inconvenience a mother with a buggy that, I am afraid, is a consequence of the protection which Parliament has chosen to give to disabled wheelchair users and not to non-disabled mothers with buggies.”
Doug added: “The judgement does not automatically apply to other bus companies so I have contacted them about the ruling and I hope they will make changes too.”
First’s website states: “Wheelchair users have priority use of the wheelchair space”, but adds that “the driver has no power to compel passengers to move in this way and is reliant upon the goodwill of the passengers concerned” and “if a fellow passenger refuses to move [the wheelchair user] will need to wait for the next bus”.
In a statement, First Bus Group said it would “take time to consider the findings”.
It added: “At First we do recognise how important it is that bus services are accessible to all and our drivers across the country are trained to act in accordance with the law in this area.”
Doug’s lawyer Chris Fry, from Unity Law, said: “There’s no point having an accessible bus if the service itself is inaccessible.
“This case has wide reaching implications, not just to the First Bus Group, but to other bus and train companies operating similar practices.
“It represents a breakthrough to disabled passengers who now have legal precedent to challenge their bus company if they have been unable to travel for similar reasons.”