A 17-year-old disabled man from Sheffield has secured a historic legal victory against the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) on account of its failure to make adjustments as a service provider to one of its branches in order to accommodate members of the public with impaired mobility.
David Allen was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at an early age and uses an electric wheelchair. When he was nine years old, RBS visited his primary school and offered a free electronic organiser to anyone who opened an account with them. As he was keen to have the gadget, an account was opened for Mr Allen at the bank’s Church Street branch in Sheffield.
When Mr Allen later began receiving Disability Living Allowance, this was paid into his RBS account. The bank’s website indicated that wheelchair access was available at the Church Street branch and the branch displayed a sign advertising the fact. However, Mr Allen found that this was not in fact the case and he was unable to enter the premises. In response to a letter to the bank’s Complaints Department, he was told that he could use the staff entrance for access to the building, ‘like other disabled customers’, but this turned out not to be possible. Furthermore, the cashpoint machines at the branch were inaccessible to Mr Allen. RBS did offer him Internet or telephone banking and also suggested he use the nearest accessible branch, which would involve a ten mile bus journey of over two hours, or branches that would mean he had to rely on other people for transport. He was also told that he could use the local NatWest branch instead, but when he attempted this he was told that his bank card could not be used there as the computer systems were not compatible.
When Mr Allen opened a savings account at the Church Street branch, a member of staff discussed the details with him and completed the paperwork on the pavement. The bank asserted that this was better treatment than any other person received.
With the support of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Mr Allen brought a claim against RBS for disability discrimination.
Sheffield County Court found that RBS had discriminated against Mr Allen by not providing physical access to wheelchair users of the branch. The Court judged that the bank had not properly considered making the necessary adjustments and had not justified its failure to do so. In its view, the bank had declined to consider sanctioning the loss of one of its ground floor interview rooms, which the alterations would have entailed.
With regard to the alternative suggestions made by RBS, Internet banking cannot be used to pay money into or draw money out of a bank and therefore does not provide a service equal to that available at the branch. The bank’s suggestion that Mr Allen could be driven to branches with suitable facilities undermined his independence. Not only was the treatment he had received discriminatory, it had also caused him considerable embarrassment. The provision of banking services in the street was to ignore his entitlement to privacy.
Judge Dowse awarded Mr Allen £6,500 – the highest ever compensation award in a case of this kind. Furthermore, he ordered an injunction to force RBS to install a platform lift at the premises by September 2009.