The Supreme Court unanimously ruled it was not enough for drivers to “simply request” a non-wheelchair user to vacate a space meant for those using a wheelchair.
If the person refused to move unreasonably, the driver must consider taking further steps to “pressurise” the reluctant passenger to leave the space “depending on the circumstances” the ruling said.
It would allow the diver to “refuse to drive on”, the seven Supreme Court judges ruled.
The judgement came after wheelchair user Doug Paulley was left at a bus stop because a woman with a baby in a buggie refused to move out of the designated area when asked by the bus driver.
And a refusal to drive on should be considered in appropriate cases
Court president Lord Neuberger
Mr Paulley, from Wetherby, West Yorkshire, who claimed an “important victory” said: “I’m 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 legal battle was triggered on February 24 2012 when he tried to board the a bus from Wetherby to Leeds operated by FirstGroup which had a sign saying: "Please give up this space if needed for a wheelchair user.”
Wheelchair user Doug Paulley was left at a bus stop because a woman with a buggie refused to move
But he was unable to board the bus after the mother refused to move the pram saying it would not fold down.
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.
However 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.”
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Lord Neuberger added: “And a refusal to drive on should be considered in appropriate cases.”
At the start of the legal battle, Mr Paulley, 38, 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, but the judgment and award was overturned by the Court of Appeal.
Mr Paulley then continued his fight before Lord Neuberger sitting with Lady Hale and Lords Kerr, Clarke, Sumption, Reed and Toulson at the UK’s highest court.
Mr Paulley’s legal battle was triggered on February 24 2012
Disabled charities welcomed the ruling and are now calling for Parliament to reinforce it with changes to the law through 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.”
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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”.
Muscular Dystrophy UK spokesman Nic Bungay said: “This is a good move forward, and other transport companies need to follow suit and remove the barriers which continue to make it so difficult for wheelchair users to board vehicles, find accessible toilets on trains and book taxis.”
FirstBus welcomed the ruling for the clarity it provided and said “any necessary changes” would be made to its policy.