The case was triggered when wheelchair user Doug Paulley, from Wetherby, West Yorkshire, attempted to board a bus operated by FirstGroup which had a sign saying: “Please give up this space if needed for a wheelchair user.”
Mr Paulley 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, saying the buggy would not fold.
FirstGroup has 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.
A judge at Leeds County Court ruled the policy breached FirstGroup’s duty under the Equality Act 2010 to make “reasonable adjustments” for disabled people and awarded Mr Paulley £5,500 in damages.
Recorder Paul Isaacs said the bus company policy should have “required” the woman to move and the wheelchair user’s right to priority should have been enforced.
But the recorder’s judgment was overturned by the appeal court, which ruled that 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.
Mr Paulley, in his late 30s, took the case before seven Supreme Court justices for a definitive ruling. They will hand down their decision on Wednesday January 18.
Mr Paulley said: “This is the first time the Supreme Court has considered a disability discrimination case relating to the provision of goods and services.
“We are seeking a clear ruling that bus companies have to do more to make it likely that wheelchair users will be able to travel.
“We also need a change in culture so that people with pushchairs realise they have to move out of these spaces for wheelchairs so that situations become less of a crunch point and confrontational.”
Martin Chamberlain QC, appearing for FirstGroup, submitted to the highest court in the land that there had been no unlawful discrimination against Mr Paulley.
He argued that requiring passengers occupying the wheelchair space to move if it was needed by wheelchair users “regardless of circumstances”, and under threat of ejection from the bus, was “not a reasonable adjustment” under the Equality Act.