22 February 2021

By Amanda Farmer

Residents of NSW apartments are another step closer towards being allowed to legally keep a pet with the recent passing of a crucial law in parliament.

In late February the Legislative Council finally agreed to amend the Strata Schemes Management Act, making it illegal for strata buildings to unreasonably ban the keeping of animals.

Last October, the Court of Appeal ruled in the landmark Horizon building case that resident Jo Cooper was allowed to keep her miniature schnauzer Angus after a costly four-and-a half-year battle. The clarity brought by the new law, which will take effect later this year, is certainly welcome news for many aspiring and existing pet owners.

Pet lovers were left in the dark

The lack of legislative reform after the Horizon case has caused a lot of confusion as many people mistakenly believed the issue was settled from that point onwards. I’ve had a continual stream of residents since October telling me they don’t know what’s going on and bemused that apartments still have pet bans.

It’s taken a while, but the passing of this new legislation now recognises the changed community attitude towards the keeping of pets in apartments which is a vindication for animal-lovers everywhere.

With the law soon to be in force, strata committees should not be unreasonably refusing applications by residents to keep pets.

Enforcing a blanket pet ban and refusing to allow a pet without a very good reason at this point is just delaying the inevitable. This law will come into force soon, and when it does any by-laws or decisions about pets considered ‘unreasonable’ will be of no effect.

What strata committees now need to do

Strata committees will now need to carefully consider what is ‘unreasonable’ once the new law starts. The effect of the new law is that if an animal does not interfere with anyone else’s use and enjoyment of their property, a decision to ban the animal is unreasonable and therefore invalid.

Strata committees should now be putting in place processes for dealing with resident applications to keep animals. Applications should not be unreasonably refused. Conditions can be set that require the animal to be quiet, clean, no bother to anyone.  As long as those conditions are met, the building is going to find it very hard to prevent or evict the animal.

For the past months, the only recourse for residents seeking permission to keep pets in the face of a ban has been to take their building to the Tribunal. They have a good chance of winning given the precedent of the Horizon case, but this all comes with an enormous amount of time, expense and emotional turmoil for the resident. This new law finally provides some much-needed clarity.

Lyn and Leonards case – “We’re not allowed to see our own dog”s now need to do

When my clients Lyn and Leonard of St Ives heard there’d been a ruling on the NSW apartment pet ban in October, they were relieved. They thought they would be free to let their dog Molly, 12 months, stay with them whenever they reside in their apartment in Shoal Bay.

“However, it’s been really annoying as the building’s strata committee is still standing by the original bylaw preventing animals in the complex,” says Lyn. “We have taken Molly up there and each time we do, we get a breach notice.”

“There actually is a registered service dog currently living on our level with a resident, so it’s not like the building has never seen a dog. I don’t understand what the problem is, Molly is never on common property, doesn’t bark and is no nuisance at all. If the bylaw is changed there would potentially only be up to eight animals in the complex which doesn’t seem like a lot.”

The couple were considering taking the building to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal to plead their case if mediation failed but are now relieved that the bylaw issue has been escalated. “It’s great that things are looking more positive for us as pet owners,” said Leonard.

Helen’s case – “Allowing pets in apartments will encourage good tenants to stay”

Another resident who inquired with me was Mosman renter Helen, who in the end was fortunate that she didn’t have to get courts involved following successful negotiations. “Since the pandemic began, I became a little lonely working from home and inquired with the strata committee about getting a small dog after I read about the Horizon case,” she said.

Although the landlord agreed, the committee did not, saying it had an existing bylaw preventing the keeping of dogs. However, Helen continued to inquire, explaining that she’d been a good tenant for six years. Eventually, the strata committee relaxed its rule and Helen is looking forward to a new pet.

Pet ownership will only increase

Given COVID has resulted in many people now working from home, and social distancing and lockdowns have now become the norm, the importance of pets in people’s lives is likely to only increase in years to come. What’s more, NSW will only continue to escalate demand for apartment living given its urban density pressures.

Since last October it’s been left up to the residents to argue their individual cases which isn’t fair. This new legislation should have been made months ago, but at least it’s now been given the green light, which is good news for pet lovers state-wide.

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