A woman was devastated after patients complained to staff about her. And the office’s response might have broken the law.
A woman was devastated after patients complained to staff about her. And the office’s response might have broken the law.

Mum ‘in tears’ over doctor surgery rule

Welcome to Sisters In Law, news.com.au's weekly column solving all of your legal problems. This week, our resident lawyers and real-life sisters Alison and Jillian Barrett from Maurice Blackburn, tackle your legal rights when it comes to service animals.

QUESTION: My mother has a small emotional support dog that she takes with her everywhere to help her deal with her severe anxiety. The dog has been life-changing for her, but she's having trouble getting shop owners and other service providers to accept that he is a service animal and not just a pet - she keeps getting asked to leave him outside and the other day ended up in tears in the doctor's office because they wouldn't let her have him inside. Other patients had apparently complained but she couldn't just leave because she had been waiting weeks for the appointment. What are her rights when it comes to emotional support animals in public places? - Kaitlyn, VIC

ANSWER: It is disappointing to hear that your mother has had this experience as Federal laws guarantee that all assistance dogs can access all public places.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 is the law that protects your mother from any discriminatory conduct.

It is not clear if your mother's dog is accredited by an animal training organisation, or has been specifically trained to alleviate her anxiety, and to meets standards of hygiene and behaviour appropriate for a public place.

If this has occurred, your mother will definitely have protections under the law and the conduct you have described likely amounts to discrimination.

Assuming the appropriate training has occurred, she can obtain an identity card from mindDog as well as a specific vest for the dog to wear. If he is wearing this when they go out together it could reduce the challenges and uncomfortable situations your mum has been facing.

The law says that your mother may need to prove that the dog is an assistance animal or is trained to meet standards of hygiene and behaviour that are appropriate for an animal in a public place.

If she doesn't provide evidence of this when asked, it is likely she can legally be refused access to the public place.

Your mum can also be asked that the dog remain under her control, or another person on her behalf, when she is in the public place.

When the law refers to "public places" it definitely includes a doctor's surgery and shops. It includes places like public footpaths, parks, banks, educational institutions, theatres, cafes and restaurants.

There are some narrow exceptions where assistance animals are legally allowed to be refused access to public spaces, such as where the dog has an infectious disease or it threatens public health or the health of another animal and its removal from the area is necessary.

An example of this could be areas of a zoo, where a dog may need to be excluded because of biosecurity or quarantine reasons.

Airlines can also refuse an assistance animal on board a flight if they are genuinely concerned that the size of the dog will be a danger on the flight, however this would rarely occur.

If your mum continues to be refused access to an area or a business, we recommend making a complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

Public places, particularly medical services, should be accessible to all, regardless of one's disability.

Complaints to the Human Rights Commission are often resolved by conciliation where, for example, your mother and the offending doctor's surgery would attend a meeting in an attempt to resolve the matter.

The outcome that could result may be a written apology, written confirmation that your mother and the assistance dog is always welcome in the surgery, disability awareness training be implemented for all staff of the practice and appropriate signs in the waiting rooms about the possible presence of assistance dogs.

Taking a stand against this poor behaviour is important not only for your mother, but also helps pave the way for a more tolerant society that is inclusive and accepting of differences.

This legal information is general in nature and should not be regarded as specific legal advice or relied upon. Persons requiring particular legal advice should consult a solicitor.

If you have a legal question you would like Alison and Jillian to answer, please email stories@news.com.au

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