In a landmark ruling, the Court of First Instance Antwerp, Mechelen division condemned De Lijn on 5 December 2023 for structurally discriminating against wheelchair users. This decision, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Equal Opportunities Decree of 10 July 2008, marks a crucial step forward in guaranteeing equal access to public transport.
Four brave wheelchair users and UNIA, represented by Johan Heymans and Yasmina El Kaddouri, have taken up the gauntlet against De Lijn. Their complaints about inaccessible buses due to a lack of equipment to leave the ramp down or even blatant refusals by drivers to allow access to their buses were recognised by the court as violations of the plaintiffs' fundamental rights. In doing so, the court emphasised that the measures already taken by De Lijn to increase accessibility were ineffective as they apparently did not ensure that persons with disabilities could independently participate in public transport. In doing so, the judges stressed the importance of public transport as an essential aspect of daily life in which wheelchair users should be able to fully participate.
Why is this statement so important?
1. It protects the basic rights of people with disabilities: This ruling offers hope to the countless wheelchair users who are often discouraged from standing up for their basic rights. It sends a powerful message that discrimination is unacceptable and justice is possible.
2. A statement backed by international instruments: Among other things, the court cited the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to safeguard the rights of our clients. This is unique and confirms that these international instruments have a direct impact on the Belgian legal order. It further demonstrates that the protection of human rights and the interpretation of obligations in that regard must be founded on a reading together of various national and international instruments.
3. A pattern of discrimination was identified: the judges further resisted a pattern of discrimination, as provided for in Article 36 of the Equal Opportunities Decree, on the part of De Lijn because several people, independently of each other, had filed complaints in the hands of UNIA against De Lijn. As a result, there is a reversal of the burden of proof. In doing so, it falls to De Lijn to prove that there was no discrimination, an important step in holding organisations accountable for their actions.
The compensation imposed of €650 per claimant is not only a symbolic punishment, but also a financial incentive for De Lijn to take immediate concrete measures.
Let us hope that this ruling is not only a turning point for De Lijn, but also an inspiration for other organisations to take inclusion and equal opportunities seriously. Discrimination has no place in our society, and this ruling proves that the law is on the side of those fighting for equality.