Campaigners believe they have made a legal breakthrough in the battle to ensure better access to buses for disabled people, despite losing a county court claim for discrimination.
Middlesbrough County Court found that bus company Arriva North East did not breach the Equality Act by refusing to allow two wheelchair-users – Jane Elliott and Andrew Ward – onto their buses in Darlington.
But Judge Peter Bowers did find in his judgment – released this week – that Arriva was subject to the Equality Act in the service it provides to disabled people.
This is believed to be the first time a judge has stated that the Equality Act does offer protection from discrimination to disabled bus passengers.
Another five claimants are putting their cases on hold, while Elliott seeks leave to appeal.
She had described how an Arriva driver refused to allow her onto his bus because there was a pushchair occupying the wheelchair space.
But the judge ruled that – because it was early afternoon and she was not in an “isolated or potentially dangerous area”, with another bus likely to arrive in about ten minutes – Elliott had not experienced “substantial disadvantage” by not being allowed to board.
Elliott and Ward argued that Arriva’s policy of “first come first served” for the wheelchair space was a breach of the Equality Act, while Arriva argued that the act did not apply because its duties were set out instead under public transport regulations.
Despite finding against the two claimants, the judge made it clear in his judgment that the Equality Act does apply to Arriva.
He said: “Although in the specific circumstances of these cases, the Defendant’s policy has not breached the Equality Act requirements, I can envisage circumstances where this policy might fall foul of the Act.”
Chris Fry, from Unity Law, the solicitors representing the seven claimants, said this was the first time a court had found a bus company could breach the Equality Act by discriminating against passengers.
He said: “We said that failure to provide access to a wheelchair space is a failure to make a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act.
“The judge has accepted that Arriva is under a duty to make a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act to avoid passengers being at a substantial disadvantage.”
He added: “We win on the key issue, but we lose simply because the judge decided in these two particular cases there wasn’t enough of a disadvantage.
“The outcome is disappointing… but it is encouraging that at least some of the core arguments in principle are accepted. This gives us a foundation to move forward, developing awareness of disabled passengers’ rights.”
Unity Law will seek permission from the high court to appeal Elliott’s case, and will be consulting other organisations, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It is also taking similar cases in other parts of the country.
The case was supported by Darlington Association on Disability, but the organisation referred a request for a comment to Unity Law.
Nigel Featham, managing director for Arriva North East, said in a statement: “We welcome the judgement but were disappointed that the matter went to court as we are always open and willing to discuss issues affecting people with disabilities to help make public transport even more accessible wherever possible.”
But the company declined to comment further.