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Assistance dogs and the Equality Act 2010

We have seen a rise in claims being brought against businesses and complaints being raised by individuals alleging that they have been discriminated against as a result of them having attended the premises of a service provider or other organisation, with an assistance dog and being refused access. Approximately 25% of the cases that we have dealt with on behalf of defendants in 2021/22 have related to alleged refusals to permit service users access to a service, with their assistance dog. Following research undertaken by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association in 2022, they found that 81% of guide dog owners have experienced an access refusal.

In the vast majority of circumstances, it is unlawful to refuse service to a disabled person accompanied by an assistance dog. Access should be permitted, including access to premises such as shops, restaurants and transport.

 

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The law and assistance dogs

The law surrounding assistance dogs is somewhat vague. There is guidance available but no firm legal precedent in respect of what, if anything, is required for a dog to be legally considered an “assistance dog” so as to afford protection under the Equality Act 2010.

As such, it does not seem that a claimant/complainant would be required to prove that their dog is an assistance dog and so there is a risk that, depending on the circumstances of the case, a service user simply stating so, could be deemed sufficient by a court.

Types of assistance dog discrimination claims

There are a number of different claims which a claimant/complainant may seek to bring if they attempt to access services and are denied the opportunity to do so as a result of them being accompanied by an assistance dog.

Broadly, the claims which can be brought under the Equality Act 2010 are claims for:

Where the claimant is alleging discrimination on the grounds of disability, there are two further claims which may be brought, these being claims for:

More specifically, in circumstances where there has been an alleged refusal to permit service to a person accompanied by an assistance dog, these claims may include:

  • A claim for discrimination arising from a disability on the basis that a person has been refused service (and therefore has been treated less favourably) as a result of their need to be accompanied by their assistance dog (something arising from their disability).
     
  • A claim for indirect discrimination on the basis that a service provider has a policy of refusing dogs on their premises, which places those who have disabilities requiring that they must be accompanied by an assistance dog, at a substantial disadvantage compared to others, as they may be refused service, as a result. If no adjustment is made to this policy to enable a disabled person to access the services, then this could also result in a potential claim for failure to make reasonable adjustments.
     
  • A claim for harassment, if any comments are made pertaining to the claimant/complainant’s need to access a service, with their assistance dog.
     
  • A claim for victimisation, if any allegations of discrimination are raised, and a service user is subsequently barred from accessing an organisations services again, in the future.

How to guard against possible claims

In order to potentially pursue a claim, an individual must be able to evidence that the service provider or its staff had knowledge that their dog was an assistance dog. Often, an assistance dog will be wearing a harness confirming its status, but this is not a legal requirement and further, staff may not always notice this.

If a person is attempting to obtain service accompanied by a dog, it is considered to be good practise for the service provider their staff to query whether the dog is an assistance dog, guide dog or service dog, so that they can then fully consider their obligations.

It is advisable to have a policy in place to make it clear that assistance dogs are permitted on premises, and to ensure that all staff are aware of this.

It may also be useful to have visible signs confirming that assistance dog are welcome, to avoid any dispute.

It is always important to ensure that all of your staff are aware of their obligations under the Equality Act 2010, to attempt to avoid any cause for complaints arising. If your staff are not aware of their obligations and refuse to provide service to someone who is accompanied by an assistance dog, then, whilst they may be personally liable, their employer will also be held liable for their actions.

The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association research via ‘One Poll’ found that a concerning 47% of retail staff and 19% of hospitality staff were unaware that refusing access to a guide dog is illegal. It is therefore imperative that staff are provided with equality and diversity training, to ensure that they are aware of their obligations, as representatives of a business.

If you do receive any complaints or claims of discrimination it is important to act quickly to attempt to resolve issues without delay, to avoid escalation.

There can be significant consequences of failing to comply with your duties under the Equality Act 2010 or of ignoring or failing to adequately investigate and respond to complaints raised. Further information on the potential legal consequences can be found here.

If your business is accused of discrimination, our team can help you. For a no obligation discussion with our specialist discrimination defence solicitors, call us on 0161 696 6170.

Defending assistance dog discrimination claims - case study

We acted on behalf of a franchise owner of a well known restaurant chain.

Our client defended a claim brought by a service user who alleged that they had been discriminated against when they were purportedly refused service with an assistance dog.

The facts and basis of the service user’s allegations were largely disputed by our client. We assisted our client in collating the evidence required to defend the claim.

We also assisted our client in resolving issues where original court deadlines had passed, and helped them to avoid criticism and sanction from the court.

We ultimately assisted our client in resolving the claim, out of court, through negotiations with the unrepresented claimant, bringing the case to a swift conclusion at limited cost and to the satisfaction of our client. 

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