Duty to Make Reasonable Adjustments for Wheelchair Users

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31 Jan 2017

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On the buses – the duty to make reasonable adjustments;

The case of First Group PLC v Paulley [2017] UKSC 4

Public Service Providers under the Equality Act 2010 (“the Act”) are under a duty to take such steps that are reasonable to avoid a disabled person being at a substantial disadvantage – often referred to as the duty to make reasonable adjustments.  The Supreme Court has recently examined this duty the case of First Group PLC v Paulley.

Background

Mr Paulley was a disabled person who needed to use a wheelchair. In February 2014, he attempted to get onto a bus, operated by First Group PLC, which had a clearly marked space for wheelchair users with the notice: “Please give up this space for a wheelchair user”. However, there was someone already occupying the space who had a sleeping baby in a pushchair. The driver asked this person to fold away her pushchair and move out of the space. This request was met with a refusal and therefore, Mr Paulley was unable to board the bus and left to wait for the next one to arrive.  Mr Paulley brought proceedings at the County Court, alleging that First Group breached the Equality Act as they were a public service provider who had failed to make reasonable adjustments under the Act.

County Court Ruling

The County Court heard that First Group had a policy of requesting, but not requiring, non-wheelchair users to vacate the space if a wheelchair user boarded one of their buses. The Court found that this was a provision, criterion or practice, which would put a disabled person at a disadvantage (as presumably if they refused like in Mr Paulley’s case, they could not board the bus and use the service). Therefore, the duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Act did arise. The Judge decided there would have been two reasonable adjustments the bus company could have made to avoid the disadvantage:
  1. To change the notice so it required non-disabled people who were occupying the wheelchair space to vacate it if a wheelchair user required it;
  2. To have an enforcement policy regarding it.
The Judge awarded £5,500 to Mr Paulley as compensation.

Case Appealed

Subsequent legal challenge saw the Court of Appeal, overturning the County Court Judgment who held that neither adjustment outlined by the County Court Judge was reasonable. Therefore, Mr Paulley appealed this decision to the Supreme Court. The seven Judges who sat in the Supreme Court agreed that First Group had breached the duty to make reasonable adjustments, though they were split in relation to the magnitude of the breach. The majority considered that the policy, which only required the bus driver to ask a non-wheelchair user to vacate the space and not take any further steps if the request was refused, was insufficient. If a driver made a request and considered the refusal to be unreasonable, they should consider a further step in order to pressure the non-wheelchair user into leaving the space. However, they also considered that the breach was limited and therefore did not consider it appropriate to award Mr Paulley compensation. The minority of Judges concluded that since an adjusted policy would have resulted in the likelihood of Mr Paulley boarding the bus, they would have upheld the award of compensation ordered by the County Court Judge. The majority decision of the Judges prevailed and although Mr Paulley was successful in his appeal he failed to be awarded any compensation.

Difference Between Service Providers and Employers

There is a contrast in the duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Act for public service providers and employers. The Supreme Court considered it relevant that First Group had little ability to compel a passenger who refused to vacate the wheelchair space. This is in contrast to employers, who generally will have many different means and greater control over their employees, in order to oblige them to comply with any reasonable adjustments it implements. Therefore, in practical terms, what is expected from employers in relation to this duty is likely to be greater than public service providers.

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