Wheelchair or pushchair, who should take priority?

November 14, 2014
Liam Proudlock

This week I’ve been at the Royal Courts of Justice in London observing a case where three appeal court judges are being asked to confirm whether disabled passengers have priority access to wheelchair spaces on buses.

The First Bus Group are appealing an earlier decision in the Leeds County Court that their “first come first served” policy for buggy or prams and wheelchair users was discriminatory and in breach of the Equality Act 2010.

I am surprised that the case needed to get this far; I don’t agree with First Bus Group that the law is unclear or doubtful about “what they are legally required to do”. After all there are literally hundreds of pages of guidance on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s website.

In the first instance it is clear enough that service providers have a duty to anticipate the need of wheelchair users as disabled customers. This is what the designated wheelchair space is, or so I always thought. But opening this space to buggy and pram users would mean that much of the time it would not be available to a wheelchair user, therefore this in my view simply cannot be a ‘reasonable adjustment’ since it would not be effective. There will no doubt be legal wrangling around this that means it is far more complex no doubt, but surely this is it in a nutshell!?

The unparalleled media interest surrounding this case that sets wheelchair users against parents and carers with sleeping babes is uncomfortable to say the least, especially for us disabled mums with a foot in both camps, but I can’t help feeling that this is an avoidable clash. At other times I wonder how this mood could change if it was me who had pushed up the bus ramp heading for the golden chalice of space with one of my wailing souls cradled in a sling across my lap. However this is Doug Paulley’s case, and on arrival at the Royal Courts there were lines of protesters, placards and film crews waiting for him and his supporters. I spoke to a few demonstrators to let them know that despite arriving by taxi I was actually a great supporter of inclusive public transport and found myself among new friends, as well as those I’d known since the accessible transport campaigns of the 80’s.

Soon, it was time to go in and I don’t think the media noticed how wheelchair users couldn’t go in the front entrance. Instead we were directed through a back door and we snaked around the perimeter of the Royal Courts and disappeared from public view. Once inside, it’s all hush-hush, no cameras. Maybe this was just as well: No-one caught on film the broken lift that meant mobility impaired people queued longer than normal to get upstairs or that the hearing enhancement system had stopped working. Then there was the café inside the Royal Courts which has no access for disabled people. Ho-hum.

We were soon ushered in. The court room was already packed – and many more wheelchair users were still waiting to get in. We were hoarded along to occupy the ends of rows, in aisles and finally literally any available space on the floor apart from a narrow passage to keep free to escape should the need arise.

We were hushed as the court clerk announced “All Rise”. Hardly anyone did, me included. Anyone capable of getting out of their wheelchair to obey the command would have been a fool – it would have needed that much more space we would have toppled the legal team like dominoes.

I was parked right under the Judge’s nose facing her in the name of truth and honour. If ever there was a time not to be thinking about my sins it was now. To my sides there were the caped and wigged barristers. There was no way out. I remembered that this was not the dock and began to feel relief as trolley-fuls of paperwork arrived for the QC and legal bods who read from them for what seemed like hours. It must have been the EHRC guidance I thought, printed off in kilogrammes net. At the end of it all it seemed that everything was in order and Paulley was covered by the Equality Act. Well that’s a relief.

Lunchtime and there’s no access to any of the cafes on the street so I got mine from a street vendor and ate ‘al fresco’ within the streaming clientele and visitors to Chancery Lane. It was hardly the chic and stylish world of the courtroom adjacent but I polished off some fast food was relived apparently not to have been noticed.

In the afternoon, facing the judge (literally not figuratively) it got into a little more detail and barristers were soon talking about ‘reasonable adjustments’. But as soon as I would come to think we were finally about to nail it, the talk would divert like an extended X-Factor result announcement and eventually after a series of anti-climaxes it was apparent that the whole process was going to at least a second day and possibly weeks for a judgement.

At the end of proceedings the assembled wheelchair users were filed out the building via the corridors and back door. But being a keen businesswoman I had switched on my mobile as soon as we left the courtroom and I was left behind as I took a call almost immediately. After a quick chat I looked around only to find myself alone in the stone corridors of the Royal Courts of Justice. Was this the verdict cast upon me – was I to be doomed to permanently reside here in a repeat of the American tourist trapped inside ‘Waterstones’ case?

Panic set upon me and I soon found the way – but the doors were locked and no coin in the slot was going to be good enough – this was no Radar key job. As I spun around I heard the distant clicks of the feet of a security guard who looked somewhat surprised to see me as he approached. He explained that only the front entrance was left open and they had thought all the wheelchair users had left. He said he would find the keys to re-open the back, which was good news because I really didn’t fancy witnessing the ghosts of any prisoners left to scurry the vaults – and, unlike Waterstones bookshop, there was only the EHRC guidance that could offer any distraction.