The Age, Cameron Houston, Jan 27, 2013
THE Supreme Court has dealt the Baillieu government’s campaign to rid the state of dangerous dogs a major blow by granting a reprieve to two dogs deemed American pit bull terriers by Darebin and Monash councils.
The court overturned a decision by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which, agreeing with the councils, had ruled the dogs complied with the legal definition of a restricted breed and should be put down.
The Supreme Court ordered the two councils to pay more than $200,000 in legal fees and pound costs, a move expected to deter other legal challenges by local governments.
VCAT had made an error of law in ruling the dogs were American pit bulls, said Justice Stephen Kaye, who ruled the physical characteristics of a dog must have a closer association with government guidelines for dangerous breeds.
The appeal case has highlighted the difficulties in identifying dogs believed to be pit bull terriers and could undermine the laws introduced in September 2011 following the fatal mauling of four-year-old St Albans girl Ayen Chol.
Under the contentious laws, all American pit bull terriers must be placed on a dangerous dog register, microchipped, desexed and muzzled when in public. Councils were given the power to destroy dogs whose owners failed to comply. Owners face 10 years’ prison if their pets are responsible for the death of a person.
Monash mayor Micaela Drieberg urged the state government to amend the legislation following the recent Supreme Court decision, which had ”raised the bar very high”.
”The government brought in these laws with the best of intentions, but the laws are not working. We’re keen to see the state government refine the laws to address the issues that are coming up,” Cr Drieberg said.
She said most councils faced massive legal costs every time a dog was declared to be a restricted breed.
The dog at the centre of the legal dispute with Monash Council, Rapta, was recently returned to its owner, while Darebin council was forced to return a dog called Tia that had been impounded for several months.
A Darebin council spokeswoman said the court decision would not be appealed but would serve as a guide when assessing dogs in future.
The court ruling has been hailed as a victory by owners of affected breeds, who have vowed to mount further court action against councils.
American Pit Bull Terrier Club of Australia president Colin Muir confirmed the organisation had helped fund several legal challenges.
Mr Muir said the recent decision would provide greater certainty for owners and discourage councils from taking legal action without proof a dog was one of the five breeds designated as dangerous by the government.
”The councils and the government need to know that we’re not going away. These laws don’t work; the government knows this but are just interested in being seen to be doing something,” Mr Muir said.
He said most dogs found to be pit bull terriers by council staff had never been involved in an attack.
Hospital admissions due to dog-related injuries rose from 451 in 2000-01 to 717 in 2010, according to figures collected by Monash University’s Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit.