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First come, first served?

BY Gerry O'Hare
Employment Law & HR
BG Purple

A disabled man, Mr Paulley, has succeeded in his appeal to the Supreme Court against transport giant FirstGroup.


Mr Paulley, a wheelchair user, was waiting for the bus to Leeds, but when the bus arrived at his stop, he found that the space reserved for wheelchair users was occupied by a mother and her sleeping child, who was in a buggy. The bus driver asked the mother to move or fold up her buggy; however she refused to do so. The driver did not take any further action, and told Mr Paulley that he would be unable to board the bus and that he should wait for the next one.


FirstGroup’s policy stated that wheelchair spaces were for the use of disabled persons, and if a wheelchair user required the space, a non-disabled person would be asked to move. It continued: “If a fellow passenger refuses to move, you will have to wait for the next bus”. The bus driver had implemented the policy.


Mr Paulley brought an action in the Leeds County Court for disability discrimination and was awarded £5500 in damages. FirstGroup appealed the decision, following which the Court of Appeal overturned the prior decision. Mr Paulley then appealed to the Supreme Court.


Mr Paulley claimed that FirstGroup had failed in its duty not to discriminate against disabled service users and failed to make a reasonable adjustment to enable him to travel on the service. The Equality Act 2010 creates an obligation on public service providers not to discriminate against a person requiring its services by not providing the person with the service, and this obligation includes a duty to make reasonable adjustments where a provision, criterion or practice puts a disabled person at substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled persons. The policy requested that bus drivers could ask non-disabled persons to move, but did not imply more than a request to move to accommodate the wheelchair user.


It was held that the bus driver (and indeed FirstGroup) could have done more to accommodate Mr Paulley. Although the bus driver did request that the mother move her buggy, he only asked once and did not ‘pressure’ the mother. It was held that bus companies should encourage drivers to pressurise non-disabled passengers to move. Whilst most of the judges agreed that this adjustment would not go so far as to include kicking non-compliant mothers with buggies in tow off buses, it does suggest that public service providers do need to go further to accommodate disabled service users, even where other non-disabled members of the public may be affected in some way.


This case highlights the further widening of the duty to make reasonable adjustments and mirrors the duty on employers to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees in the workplace. This can include making changes to workplace policies or physical features or providing auxiliary aids. On 23 January 2017, the Department for Work and Pensions published guidance on employing disabled people and people with health conditions. This guidance provides a summary of information and links to resources for employers to help increase their understanding of disability, enabling them to recruit and support disabled people and those with long-term health conditions in work. If you have a query about disability discrimination, contact your LAW Employment Solicitor. 

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