Case Preview: FirstGroup Plc v Paulley
17 Wednesday Aug 2016
The Supreme Court heard the appeal in FirstGroup Plc v Paulley on 15 June 2016.
A permanent wheelchair user attempted to board a bus operated by FirstGroup Plc. A sign on the bus asked passengers occupying the wheelchair space to “please give up this space if needed for a wheelchair user”. The designated wheelchair space was occupied by a woman with a baby in a pushchair who refused to move when the driver asked her to. The driver took no further action and the appellant was unable to board the bus, which significantly delayed his travel plans. He sued the respondent for unlawful discrimination.
County Court decision
The judge in the Leeds County Court found that FirstGroup’s policy was a “provision criterion or practice” (a “PCP”) which placed the wheelchair user at a substantial disadvantage by comparison with non-disabled bus passengers. The judge went on to find that there were reasonable adjustments that FirstGroup could have made which would eliminate that disadvantage. Those reasonable steps were an alteration to the conditions of carriage which would require a non-disabled passenger occupying a wheelchair space to move from it if a wheelchair user needed it; coupled with an enforcement policy that would require non-disabled passengers to leave the bus if they failed to comply with that requirement.
On very similar facts, in Black & Ors v Arriva North East Ltd (1 May 2013) HHJ Bowers, sitting in the Middlesborough County Court, held that Arriva, who had a policy identical to that of FirstGroup, were not guilty of unlawful discrimination. Because the two cases came to different conclusions on almost identical facts, permission to appeal was granted in both cases. However the appeal in Black has since been withdrawn.
Court of Appeal judgment
Lord Justice Lewison in the Court of Appeal held that the issue to be determined was whether the bus company must have a policy to compel all other passengers to vacate the wheelchair space irrespective of the reason why they are in it, leaving no discretion to the driver. The court considered whether the Equality Act 2010, ss 20, 21 and 29(7) and Sch 2, para 2 had been breached by the bus company. The court allowed the appeal made by the bus company, and found that had the disabled wheelchair space already been occupied by another wheelchair user, the wheelchair user that made the claim would have faced the same disadvantage.
In the Supreme Court
The wheelchair user appealed to the Supreme Court. It will have to decide the extent to which a bus company is required to accommodate disabled wheelchair users by making reasonable adjustments.