‘Cat ban’ case could provide Equality Act clarity for service providers

Out-Law News | 06 Jun 2022 | 1:44 pm | 1 min. read

A case brought by an autistic man against a UK supermarket chain for refusing entry to his assistance cat could help to clarify a complex area of equality law, according to one legal expert.

Julian Sladdin, commercial litigation expert at Pinsent Masons, said that, if the case proceeds to court, it could set a new legal precedent “likely to be of significant importance to all service providers” because it addresses an area of the law “where there is urgent need for clarity.”

His comments come after designer Ian Fenn launched legal action against Sainsbury’s for refusing to allow his assistance cat, Chloe, to enter a store in Clapham, South London. Fenn, who has autism, said the ban limited his independence. He told the BBC: "It affected my confidence significantly. I stayed in the house for two weeks before I got the confidence back to go out."

Under the 2010 Equality Act, business owners have a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to make sure that people with disabilities, including autism, are not placed at a substantial disadvantage. But Sainsbury’s said that cats, unlike assistance dogs, present a risk to food hygiene. It argued that while Chloe may be well-behaved, any change to its general policy would risk allowing other, poorly-trained, cats to enter stores.

Sladdin said: “This case addresses an area of the law relating to reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act where there is urgent need for clarity. While the Act provides specific recognition for assistance dogs, trained by recognised organisations, such as guide dogs, the position on other forms of assistance and support animals does not appear to have been contemplated by those drafting the legislation or indeed satisfactorily resolved by subsequent guidance from EHRC.”

“Therefore, providers are now finding themselves having to deal with increasingly complex decisions regarding access for assistance or support animals on the grounds that they are auxiliary aids without any clarity on how to assess the reasonableness of the adjustments sought. In particular, as in this case, providers need better guidance on how to balance their obligations to take proportionate steps to meet legitimate aims such as ensuring health and safety, food hygiene and other matters against the duty to make adjustments for disabled customers,” he added.

A spokesperson for Sainsbury’s said: "We want to be an inclusive retailer where people love to work and shop and understand that some of our colleagues and customers may need support in our stores. At the same time, safety is our highest priority and our colleagues are trained to balance maintaining our high food hygiene standards with supporting all our customers who shop with us.

They added: "We are in contact with the local environmental health team to see if there are ways we can help Mr Fenn to visit our store without compromising this."