The Supreme Court unanimously ruled it was not enough for drivers to “simply request” a non-wheelchair user to vacate the space without taking any further steps.
The highest court in the land ruled, if a refusal to move is unreasonable, the driver must consider taking further steps to “pressurise” the reluctant passenger to leave the space, “depending on the circumstances”.
Those steps could in appropriate cases, include “a refusal to drive on”.
Mr Paulley, from Wetherby, was cheered by other wheelchair users and disabled people outside the court in London after the ruling.
He said: “I am absolutely delighted. It has been a long fight. We have achieved something really substantial here which will make a difference to people who need the wheelchair space - not just wheelchair users but other disabled people.
“This is important - a significant cultural change.”
Mr Paulley’s marathon legal battle was triggered on the morning of February 24 2012 when he attempted to board the 9.40 bus from Wetherby to Leeds operated by FirstGroup which had a sign saying: ‘’Please give up this space if needed for a wheelchair user.”
He was on his way to catch a train to meet his parents for lunch in Stalybridge.
But he was left at the stop because a woman with a sleeping baby in a pushchair refused to move out of the designated area when asked by the bus driver. She said the buggy would not fold.
FirstGroup had a policy of ‘’requesting but not requiring’’ non-disabled travellers, including those with babies and pushchairs, to vacate the space if it is needed by a wheelchair user.
On Wednesday seven Supreme Court justices ruled FirstGroup’s policy should have gone further.
Court president Lord Neuberger said: “It was not enough for FirstGroup to instruct its drivers simply to request non-wheelchair users to vacate the space and do nothing if the request was refused.
“The approach of the driver must depend upon the circumstances, but where the refusal is unreasonable, some further step to pressurise the non-wheelchair user to move should be considered.”
Lord Neuberger added: “And a refusal to drive on should be considered in appropriate cases.”
At the start of the legal battle, Mr Paulley, in his late 30s, won a ruling at Leeds County Court that the FirstGroup’s policy breached the company’s duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people.
Recorder Paul Isaacs said the bus company policy should have “required” the woman with the baby buggy to move and the wheelchair user’s right to priority should have been enforced.
He awarded Mr Paulley £5,500 in damages.
The recorder’s judgment and award was overturned by the Court of Appeal, which ruled such a policy would not strike a fair balance between the needs of wheelchair users and the needs of other passengers who might be vulnerable.
The policy would also be liable to give rise to confrontation and delayed journeys, said the appeal judges.
In the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger said Mr Paulley’s challenge to the appeal court ruling was being allowed “only to a limited extent”.
And, by a 4-3 majority, it had been decided not to reinstate his damages award.
The judge said the appeal judges were right to disagree with the recorder’s conclusion that FirstGroup “should have a policy that could lead to a non-wheelchair user being ordered off the bus”.
Even a rule that any non-wheelchair user “must vacate only where it is reasonable would not be acceptable if implemented through mandatory enforcement”, said the judge.
It would be likely to lead to unacceptable delays and sometimes confrontation with passengers, particularly if a bus was full.
The judge said: “Passengers are at least arguably not subject to a statutory obligation to comply with a policy relating to the use of the space, and would not appear to be under such an obligation to get off the bus if they fail to do so.”
He added FirstGroup could not be criticised for “politely” requesting non-wheelchair users to vacate the space and not expressing its notice in more forceful terms.
“The suggestion that the notice should state that priority of wheelchair users ‘would be enforced’ would be false.”
Refusing to reinstate Mr Paulley’s damages award for not being able to travel on the 9.40 to Leeds, the judge said it was impossible to conclude, if FirstGroup had required its driver “to be more forceful”, there would have been a real prospect of him being able to board.
Disabled charities have widely welcomed the ruling - handed down by Lord Neuberger sitting with Lady Hale and Lords Kerr, Clarke, Sumption, Reed and Toulson.
They are now calling for Parliament to reinforce it with changes to the law through the Bus Services Bill.
And Penny Mordaunt, who is Minister for Disabled People, Work and Health, said: “It is clear that it should not just be up to the disabled passenger to get a person to move out of the space, but the transport provider too.
“I’ll be talking to the Department for Transport about clarity, good practice and the powers of transport providers to ensure this ruling becomes a reality.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which supported Mr Paulley’s legal battle, described it as “a victory for disabled people’s rights” which would “give confidence to thousands of disabled people in Britain to use public transport”.
Chairman David Isaac said: “This has been about correcting a confusing policy which has caused untold problems for disabled people.”
Mr Isaac said the court had suggested that the law should be reconsidered in order to provide much-needed clarity for bus companies and their customers.
He said the Commission would be pressing for those changes in the Bus Services Bill.
Richard Lane, spokesman for disability charity Scope, said: “Most people don’t realise just how difficult it is for disabled people to get around, to get to the shops, or to visit friends.
“These spaces are often a lifeline into work and the local community.
“This ruling sends a clear message to transport providers right across the country that they have a responsibility to make travel easier and more comfortable for all of their customers.”
Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon said: “It is now vital that this legal ruling is properly enforced across TfL’s fleet of 9,000 buses.
“However clear legal guidance on this issue is only part of the solution. We now need to look at the design of buses and consider whether more wheelchair space is now needed to avoid conflicts arising between wheelchair users and parents with buggies and prams.”
Muscular Dystrophy UK spokesman Nic Bungay said that, following the judgment, there was a need for further clarity and potentially a change in the law “in order for everyone to understand what their rights and responsibilities are”.
“Disabled people aren’t looking to cause problems, but, unlike a buggy, you can’t fold up most wheelchairs. We work with lots of disabled parents who know all too well that buggy users shouldn’t be pitted against wheelchair users,” he said.
“This is a good move forward, and other transport companies need to follow suit and remove the barriers that continue to make it so difficult for wheelchair users to board vehicles, find accessible toilets on trains and book taxis.
“Doug has been courageous in fighting for the rights of all disabled people, although the fact the case has gone all the way to the Supreme Court shows how hard-fought disabled rights continue to be.”
FirstBus welcomed the ruling for the clarity it provided and said “any necessary changes” would be made to its policy.
Managing director Giles Fearnley said: “This was clearly a difficult case for the Supreme Court with six different judgments, and we look forward to receiving further clarity around the decision when the court publishes its order. In response, we will implement any necessary changes.
“We recognise how important it is that bus services are accessible for all customers and we lead the industry in improving bus travel for customers with all disabilities.
“We are therefore also pleased that the Supreme Court found that we did not discriminate against Mr Paulley.”
Independent transport watchdog Transport Focus said: “Bus drivers now need to be provided with adequate support and training to help passengers.
“Bus operators will also need to communicate to passengers how this ruling will work in practice to allow priority spaces to be accessible to wheelchair users.”
Mick Cash, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union RMT, described the ruling as “a great result for disabled passengers’ rights” - and relevant to trains as well as buses.
He said: “By ruling that FirstGroup’s policy of requiring a driver to simply request a non-wheelchair user to vacate the space without taking any further steps was unjustified shows that it is not the responsibility of disabled passengers to fight discrimination but the companies offering the service.
“This judgment has serious implications not only for all bus companies but also all those train companies who are disadvantaging disabled people using their services every day.
“It also reinforces RMT’s case for staffing levels that enable people with disabilities equal access to the transport network.”