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Reasonable Adjustments - How far must a policy go?

on Friday, 27 January 2017.

In the widely reported case of FirstGroup Plc v Paulley, the Supreme Court found that a bus operator's policy to...

... request non-wheelchair users to vacate the wheelchair space, if the space was required by a wheelchair user, did not go far enough to comply with its duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.

Legal Background

The Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010) provides that where a provision, criterion or practice (PCP) of a service provider puts a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage in relation to a relevant matter in comparison with persons who are not disabled, the service provider must take such steps as it is reasonable to have to take to avoid the disadvantage.


Mr Paulley, a wheelchair user, was unable to board a bus due to the wheelchair space being occupied by a woman with a sleeping child in a pushchair. The woman refused to vacate the space, following a request from the driver. The driver took no further action. As a result, Mr Paulley had to wait for the next bus and, consequently, arrived at his destination an hour later than planned.

Mr Paulley brought a claim for disability discrimination, arguing that FirstGroup's 'first come first served' policy placed wheelchair users at a substantial disadvantage and that it failed to make reasonable adjustments to this policy to avoid the disadvantage.

The County Court found in favour of Mr Paulley on the basis that it would have been a reasonable adjustment to require non-wheelchair users to leave the bus if they failed to vacate the wheelchair space. FirstGroup successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal who found that it would not be reasonable for drivers to require, rather than simply request, non-wheelchair users to vacate the wheelchair space and then to positively enforce that requirement with the ultimate sanction being removal from the bus. Mr Paulley appealed to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court found that FirstGroup's policy should require its drivers to do more than simply request a non-wheelchair user to vacate the space. The Supreme Court held that it would be good practice to encourage drivers to go as far as they thought appropriate in the circumstances to induce the passenger to reconsider any initial refusal to move. This could include rephrasing a polite request as a requirement or stopping the bus in order to increase the pressure on a non-wheelchair user to move.

It held, however, that an absolute rule (i.e. one that required non-wheelchair users to always vacate the space if required) or a conditional rule (i.e. one that required a non-wheelchair user to move unless it was reasonable for them to refuse) would not be a reasonable adjustment because enforcement of any such rule may lead to confrontation, violence, delay to the service and inconvenience to other passengers.

Best Practice

Although this case considers reasonable adjustments in the context of a service provider, and is not an employment case, the decision serves as a useful reminder to employers to consider their obligations under the EqA 2010. Employers must be alive to the possibility that their policies, practices and rules may place disabled staff at a substantial disadvantage and that, if this is the case, they have a duty to adjust such practices for that employee in an attempt to reduce or remove the disadvantage. Failure to do so will give rise to the risk of a disability discrimination claim.

For more information please contact Nick Murrell in our Employment Law team on 0117 314 5627.