Three historic oak benches have been stripped out of the UK Supreme Court to make way for the start today of what is being billed as the battle of wheelchairs versus buggies.
In a first, the large benches have been removed from the main courtroom to clear space for wheelchair users to attend a landmark appeal over their right to claim designated spaces on buses.
The challenge is being brought by Doug Paulley, 36, from Wetherby, West Yorkshire, who was denied use of the wheelchair space on a bus because it was already occupied by a young mother with a sleeping baby in a buggy. Several wheelchair users want to attend the hearing in the highest court of the land before five justices, headed by Lord Neuberger, the court’s president.
Mothers with babies can also attend the hearing, although a court spokesman said they did not predict a scrum between wheelchair users and parents with buggies. The Supreme Court commissioned an independent assessment which found that up to 14 wheelchair users could be evacuated safely from the building in the event of an emergency within a reasonable time.
In a second unprecedented move, the court has held a public ballot so that people do not make needless journeys to Parliament Square in the hope of a space. Those unlucky in the ballot can watch the proceedings live via the court’s website.
Paulley, whose case is backed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, took the bus operator, First Group, to court, saying that it had breached its duty under the Equality Act 2010 in the way it operated a first come, first served policy for those wishing to board the bus.
He won his case in Leeds County Court but the decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal . In his appeal papers to the Supreme Court, Paulley says: “The effect of the judgment is to deny wheelchair users any practical legal right to occupy the space on a bus that is designed for occupation by a wheelchair and to substitute a mere general exhortation to the public to let them use it.”
Annabel Mackay, an employment lawyer at Addleshaw Goddard, a City of London law firm, said the practical effect of the Court of Appeal’s decision was to leave wheelchair users “reliant on the goodwill of other passengers, pending legislative reform or improvements to bus design”.
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