Published on 3 Dec 2012 Sections

Arriva faces court action over disability

In the latest from our No Go Britain series, investigating the difficulties faced by disabled passengers, Katie Razzall reports on a bus company now facing legal action in a landmark case.

At the start of our No Go Britain series we featured the story of a group of disabled campaigners taking their local bus company to court.

We filmed one of them, Anthony Wilson, shivering in his wheelchair when the bus arrived with a faulty ramp, meaning Anthony could not get on. He told us: “It happens all the time in Darlington.”

Today the court case opened in Middlesbrough. It is the first case of its kind against a transport company, and could set a precedent for how the equality act is interpreted in future, which is why disability rights campaigners and transport companies are closely following proceedings.

There are two issues the campaigners want addressed. Firstly, they object to Arriva North East’s policy that their drivers do not have to force people taking up the wheelchair space (with buggies or shopping, for example) to move if someone with a wheelchair wants to board.

Humiliating experience’

Today we heard evidence from one of the claimants, Jane Elliot, who described occasions when she had been left behind at the bus stop because there was no space in the section of the bus she says by rights is hers. She called it a “humiliating experience”.

The second complaint is about what they claim is Arriva’s failure to put down ramps. That was the issue we witnessed with Anthony Wilson. Campaigners here in the north east say it happens far too often. Jane Elliot today told the court: “The problem with the driver was his attitude. He treated me like I was a total waste of time. When I asked him to put the ramp down, he said: ‘I haven’t got time for this. I’m late already’.”

Since 2006 the law says transport providers have a duty to make “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate disabled travellers. The equality act says: “Where a provision, criterion or practice of A’s puts a disabled person at substantial disadvantage in relation to a relevant matter in comparison with persons who are not disabled, to take such steps as is reasonable to have to take to avoid the disadvantage.”

The claimants in this civil case say that Arriva’s first come, first served policy towards the wheelchair space on its buses “clearly puts the claimants at a substantial disadvantage when compared with non-disabled service users, as they are unable to travel on the bus unless the designated wheelchair space is available”.

Best practice

Lawyers for the claimants today gave examples of best practice. Transport for London’s policy, if a passenger refuses to move from the wheelchair area, is to use the public address system to make clear they must. The bus driver can also refuse to drive on until the wheelchair space is freed up.

Lothian Buses expect passengers to vacate the space, and exclude unfoldable prams from its buses. Oxford Buses have created spaces for both buggies and wheelchairs.

Arriva North East has told the court it acts in line with the law, training its drivers appropriately, and that it is not under a legal obligation to let a wheelchair user on the bus if the space is full. Its drivers cannot compel people with pushchairs or shopping to move, it says.

The case will continue, with breaks, into February next year. The claimants are demanding £18,000 in compensation from Arriva North East. They also hope the judge will make recommendations to which transport companies will have to listen.