For the first time since the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, a service provider has been ordered, by injunction, to make alterations to its premises to facilitate access for the disabled. Matt Grindley of stevensdrake reviews the case of Allen v Royal Bank of Scotland Group plc  EWCA Civ 1213 and considers its future impact on UK businesses.
Mr Allen, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, opened a bank account with the Royal Bank of Scotland's main branch in Sheffield when he was 10 years old. Due to his condition, he is required to use a wheelchair. Access to the main entrance to the branch was by a flight of steps. Consequently, the branch was not wheelchair accessible and Mr Allen was forced to meet with an advisor in the street outside the bank to discuss his banking needs. Following Mr Allen's complaints, the Bank suggested that Mr Allen use other branches of the Bank elsewhere in the City and also offered Mr Allen the use of a telephone and internet banking services.
Mr Allen launched legal proceedings against the Bank for damages for unlawful disability discrimination for failure to make reasonable adjustments (implement wheelchair access) at the branch.
The bank had considered the option of installing a platform lift in the branch but did not go ahead as it would lose the use of one of its interview rooms.
The trial Judge, in the first instance, gave judgment in favour of Mr Allen and held that the Bank had breached its duty to Mr Allen contrary to Section 90(1)(b) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (the "reasonable adjustment" duty). The trial Judge also ordered the bank to install a platform lift and awarded Mr Allen damages for injury to his feelings of £6,500.00
The Bank appealed against the trial Judge's decision.
Decision Of The Court of Appeal
The main issue before the Court of Appeal was whether the Bank was justified in declining to make physical adjustments (here being implementation of wheelchair access at the branch) on the basis that services could be offered to a disabled person in an alternative way.
The Court held, essentially, that the service in question was the provision of banking facilities at the main branch and that the provision of telephone and internet banking facilities was not a reasonable alternative to "face-to face" banking. Where a service provider offers, "face-to-face" services to the general public, the same service should be made available to disabled persons.
The Court upheld the Trial judge's view that service providers can only rely on reasonable alternative methods of providing the service if it is impossible to provide physical access to premises. That was clearly not the case as the Bank had toyed with the option of installing a platform lift and had drawn up plans and a specification.
Furthermore, the Court ordered the Bank to install the lift in the branch.
Impact Of The Decision
Until now, no service provider has been compelled to make physical adjustments to ensure that disabled persons have equal access to its services. This case highlights the need for service providers to take positive steps and greater care to ensure that they comply with their responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
In light of this case, service providers will need to anticipate the types of problems that could arise so that when a disabled person requests a service, they will have already taken reasonable steps to overcome any problems with access. What's more, service providers cannot assume that because they have made some adjustments to their premises, they owe no further duty to disabled persons. The above case illustrates that service providers owe, not just an anticipatory duty but a continuing one to disabled persons. It would be prudent for service providers to carry out regular reviews of their services and facilities as more practicable alternatives may be identified to facilitate access to disabled persons.
Published - June 2010
This article is provided for general information only. Please do not make any decision on the basis of this article alone without taking specific advice from us. stevensdrake will only be responsible for the advice we give which is specific to you.