Reforms to give protection to users of assistance animals

29 January 2009

People who rely on assistance animals would receive greater legal protection and face less discrimination under reforms proposed by the Victorian Law Reform Commission.

The reforms are recommended in the Commission’s final report on assistance animals tabled today by Attorney-General Rob Hulls.

Chair of the Commission, Professor Neil Rees, said people who rely on assistance animals need adequate legal protection to ensure they can participate in all aspects of society.

“Assistance animals have long been used by people with disabilities to provide support in everyday life – at work, at home, and in the community,” Professor Rees said.

“Despite this important role, the laws concerning the use of assistance animals are unclear. As a result, those people who use assistance animals sometimes have to struggle to assert their rights.”

Users of assistance animals reported to the Commission that lack of awareness in the community and by service providers meant they encountered discrimination in their everyday lives.

The most common example of complaints by assistance animal users was access to premises and use of transport services. Professor Rees said: “we can prevent this sort of systemic discrimination by improving our laws. Lodging complaints in individual cases is not the most effective way of ensuring that people who use assistance animals are treated fairly”.

Professor Rees said there are currently four pieces of legislation and 14 regulations that govern the use of assistance animals making the law needlessly complex.

The Commission recommends a scheme for the regulation of assistance animals in Victoria that includes:

  •  introducing a statutory accreditation system for animal trainers
  •  introducing a public access test that sets a standards for animal behaviour
  •  establishing a uniform identification card system for assistance animal users
  •  a new Assistant Animals Act that includes all of the relevant law in one place.

Professor Rees said that while training organisations have set their own high standards, the introduction of a statutory accreditation scheme would provide greater consistency of training.

“To become accredited, trainers would have to demonstrate they meet a range of standards which would provide assistance animal users and the community as a whole with confidence in the system,” he said.

One recommended test is a ‘public access test’ that all dogs would have to pass in order to show they can perform tasks and functions to alleviate the effect of a person’s disability as well as prove they can operate safely and unobtrusively in public.

Professor Rees said the report is also concerned with the lack of awareness in the community and among service providers about the rights of people using an assistance animal.

To reduce this confusion the Commission recommends the introduction of a uniform identification card for all assistance animal users to be administered by a government department.

Professor Rees said apart from enhancing existing rights, the Commission also made recommendations to remove discrimination against people with disabilities who are not covered by current Victorian law concerning the use of assistance animals.

He said the section of the Equal Opportunity Act 1995 governing the use assistance animals is limited to people with vision, hearing and mobility impairment only.

The Commission recommends the Act be amended so that it applies to all people with a disability.

“The group of people who fall within assistance animal laws would expand under this recommendation, but the report also recommends criteria to make it clear that assistance animals differ from animals that are companions” Professor Rees said.

“Under this recommendation a user must demonstrate that their use of a dog alleviates the effect of their disability not merely provides comfort and companionship.”

The final report follows the publication of a consultation paper in September last year and extensive consultation with the disability sector, dog trainers, service providers and government departments.

The project was suggested by the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission as a community law reform project.

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