Wetherby wheelchair campaigner loses battle against bus company

Doug Paulley, from Wetherby.
Doug Paulley, from Wetherby.

A Wetherby man was today the centre of an Appeal Court test case which has resulted in a landmark ruling over the rights of the disabled to occupy areas set aside for them on public transport.

Doug Paulley, 36, won £5,500 compensation at Leeds County Court after a judge ruled that a bus company should have compelled a woman with a pram who was occupying the wheelchair space on a bus to make way for him.

But today three of the country’s top judges ruled that the County Court judge was wrong.

While they expressed sympathy for the plight of wheelchair users they held that First Group PLC – the bus company at the centre of the case – had not breached the terms of the 2010 Equality Act in failing to move the woman with the pram.

The woman’s baby was sleeping in the pram and because she would not move Mr Paulley had to wait 20 minutes for another bus and missed a train he was catching to Leeds.

Overturning the damages awards to him Lord Justice Lewison who was sitting with Lady Justice Arcen and Lord Justice Underhill said: “What is at issue is whether the bus company must have a policy to compel all other passengers to vacate the wheelchair space irrespective of the reason they are in it, on pain of being made to leave the bus if they do not, leaving no discretion to the driver.

“I have concluded that that is a step too far.”

The judges allowed an appeal by First Group PLC against a decision of Recorder Paul Isaacs at Leeds County Court in August last year in which he had held that the bus company owed wheelchair users a duty in law.

They also refused Mr Paulley of Wetherby, backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Lord Lewison said the case was “not about whether non-wheelchair users should move out of the wheelchair space on a bus in order to accommodate a passenger in a wheelchair.”

He said: “Of course they would if that is possible. Nor is it about whether mothers standing in the wheelchair space with a child in a folding buggy should fold their buggies in order to make way for a wheelchair user. Of course they should if that is possible.

“Non wheelchair users, will normally have a choice about which part of the bus to sit or stand in. Common decency and respect for wheelchair users should mean that other passengers make way for them.”

But he said when Mr Paulley tried to board a bus in Wetherby in February 2012 the space was taken up by a mother with a sleeping baby in a pram that would not fold down.

She refused to move, forcing him to catch the next bus about 20 minutes later, meaning him missing a train connection he planned to get from Leeds.

First Bus had a policy of requesting but not ordering passengers to move for wheelchair users.

The County Court judge found that they had breached the 2010 Equality Act and that there had been discrimination.

In today’s ruling Lady Justice Arden said: “Most people today would agree that a person with a mobility impairment who has to use a wheelchair should still have access to as many opportunities as possible.”

She said Parliament required service providers to make adjustments to accommodate disabled people.

She said it was “common sense” that “the bus company must take all reasonable steps short of compelling passengers to move from the wheelchair space.”

But she said the court considered that First Group had taken all reasonable steps and Mr Paulley had never had a problem prior to this occasion.

She added: “I do not underestimate the difficulties of travel for wheelchair users, or their frustration at the pace of change.”