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Employment lawyers will be familiar with the concept of reasonable adjustments insofar as they relate to the employment relationship.
The law behind the case
FirstGroup plc v Paulley is a case concerning reasonable adjustments in the context of public service provision. Under the Equality Act 2010, a provider of services to the public is, in certain circumstances, under a duty to make reasonable adjustments for any service users who are disabled. This duty arises where a provision, criterion or practice of the provider places disabled persons at a substantial disadvantage in relation to a relevant matter when compared with non-disabled service users.
The facts of the case
In this case, Mr Paulley was disabled and attempted to get on a bus operated by FirstGroup (“FG”). The designated disabled seat was already occupied by a passenger with a sleeping child in a pram. The driver asked the passenger to move but she refused, despite clear signage saying “Please give up this space for a wheelchair user”. The signage did not make any threats or reference to enforcement on the basis that FG preferred a more customer friendly approach. The operator’s policy was that people could be asked to move from disabled spaces but if they refused the disabled person would not be permitted to board the bus. That is what happened here and Mr P had to wait 20 minutes for the next bus. The driver was not expected to wrestle the lady and pram out of the seat.
The outcome of the case
Mr P raised a court claim of discrimination alleging failure to make reasonable adjustments. He was initially successful and won £5.5k in damages. FG appealed successfully on the basis that it was not reasonable to expect drivers to force non-disabled users out of a seat. It also acknowledged that a non-disabled person might have reasonable grounds for not vacating the space and drivers could not be expected to assess such reasonableness.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court which found that while it would not be reasonable to have an absolute policy requiring drivers to force non-disabled users out of disabled seats, FG had not done enough by their policy of simply asking passengers to move from the disabled seat without anything further. The Court held that the policy should have required the driver to use “best endeavours” to encourage the reluctant passenger to move. For example, the driver could rephrase the original polite request as a requirement or even stop the bus to pressure the passenger into moving. Given the tight schedules on which buses operate, one can see the potential for such an approach leading to passenger dissatisfaction. However such peer pressure could well be sufficient to guilt the reluctant person into moving.
As one of the Lords put it, there was no ideal solution in this case, merely a number of unsatisfactory ones. Those with faith in the goodness of humanity would hope that cases of this nature will be few and far between, though perhaps that is wishful thinking.
What can we learn from this case?
The case does highlight a useful example of the application of the Equality Act beyond the employment law sphere in which it is most commonly quoted.
Please do not treat this as an invitation to occupy a disabled seat on the bus and see what the driver does about it!
Otherwise the wheels on the bus may not go round and round…