What is an Animal Lawyer?
As an animal lawyer you study and practice the law relating to animals and apply your country's legal system to speak for animals, their human associates and allies. As a specialist in animal law you advance legislative change by arguing for the legal status of animals.
Animal law works at provincial, state, national and international levels and ranges across cases of cruelty, criminal action and negligence, specific contracts and property rights, corporate and criminal matters, and governmental, constitutional and international rulings. The animals who may benefit from the law are as diverse as wild animals, farm animals, pet animals, experimental animals, zoo and captive animals, as individuals, populations and species.
Animal law is a growing field as shown by the increase in animal law cases, the enactment of animal welfare legislation, the growth of animal law courses, and the founding of professional associations and student groups for animal law. Animal law has become an independent field of law in the United States, currently taught at dozens of law schools, with animal law clinics, conferences and student organisations, and other countries are following suite.
Animal Legal Standing
Although an ostensible purpose of the law generally is to protect the vulnerable, this duty is by no means sufficiently extended to animals. Relatively few laws exist that rigorously define and protect the welfare of animals and there are virtually no laws that have much bearing on protecting rights of animals. In fact, laws relating to animals treat animals as property owned by people. In practice this means that animals cannot rectify their grievances and afflictions through the legal system. It would be extraordinary for you as a lawyer to bring a legal action on behalf of animals; you can only represent their human guardians or allies who speak for them, much the same as when adults bring actions to court for children.
Some lawyers think that animals will attain better protection and appropriate rights without a change in their status as the property of people . Other lawyers believe the only way to protect animals from human mistreatment is to abolish the status of animals as property and a number of court cases have fought for this; these lawyers have appealed to the courts to recognise animals as sentient and to introduce laws accordingly. In 1997 the European Union officially recognised animals as sentient beings and the EU now requires that member states “pay full regard” to animal welfare. Nevertheless, the EU ruling will have to struggle a long way before it translates into practical legal benefits for animals in the face of economic pressures to use animals.
Animal lawyers in the United States are advocating for animals by collecting signatures to petition congress for an Animal Bill of Rights (1). The Bill would give animals:
- The right to be free from exploitation, cruelty, neglect and abuse.
- The right of farmed animals to an environment that satisfies their basic physical and mental needs.
- The right of animals to have their interests represented in court and defended by the law of the land.
- The right of animals used in laboratories not to be used in cruel or 'unnecessary' experiments.
- The right of wildlife to a natural habitat, ecologically sufficient for a normal existence and self-sustaining populations.
- The right of companion animals to a healthy diet, protective shelter and adequate medical care.
Animal Legal Disputes
Protecting animals through litigation in the courts is a route that can lead to statutory reform and in countries like Britain and the United States it has never been easier for animal organisations to mount test cases.
The British Government granted planning permission in the early 2000’s to the University of Cambridge for a new research facility to experiment on primates. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) challenged the planning permission. The plaintiff lost but the case may have been a factor that influenced the university to abandon the building project.
In another case concerning BUAV vs the British Government and Cambridge University, the legal courts ruled that the government had acted unlawfully by licensing invasive brain experiments on marmoset monkeys at the university; the suffering that was caused was not moderate, as the Government claimed, but substantial. The judgement could mean fewer licenses granted to the university’s animal experimenters.
The majority of animal law cases, however, are smaller and closer to everyday life. A man in Livingston, Montana, was prosecuted in 2006 for shooting and beating to death his neighbour’s cat. He was charged with cruelty to animals and firing a gun within the city limits. The judge fined him a small sum of money and sentenced him to a year’s jail deferred for a year. This is an example of lenient sentencing in animal cases that animal lawyers want to change so that the punishment fits the crime.
Other kinds of everyday animal law are veterinary malpractice, when something goes wrong or someone is negligent; cases when an animal is harassed, bites back and is then at risk of being put down by law; and cases concerning custody of animals in divorce disputes.
Your Work as an Animal Lawyer
In addition to taking on test cases in animal law and disputing local cases in the courts as described above, there are other opportunities for animal lawyers to further the interests of animals and the animal law profession. Animal lawyers:
Taking Up Animal Law
- Improve, reform and strengthen animal law legislation.
- Prosecute violations of animal-related criminal law and cases of animal cruelty or neglect.
- Provide legal advice about animal law to the public, animal humane societies and other organisations.
- Ensure animal laws are enforced (often they are neglected) and are interpreted as intended (often they are not).
- Ensure public debate about animal rights and welfare from a legal point of view is informed and conducted impartially and fairly.
- Take part in consultations and monitor developments in legislative bodies and relevant international institutions.
- Publish scholarly articles in journals of animal law.
- Disseminate information about animal law through professional seminars and media channels.
- Plan animal law conferences and workshops and the training of students in animal law.
To be an animal lawyer you must first study and train to be a qualified lawyer, then specialise in animal law. You should seek up to date information and advice from career counsellors about training in law, and animal law in particular. Also search the Web under 'animal law programs' or 'animal law courses'.
Even if you are not a certified lawyer you might nevertheless counsel on animal law and related procedures provided you do not claim to anyone that you are a lawyer. You might be able to make your way as an independent voluntary ‘para-legal’, carrying out research, determining facts and providing procedural information for clients. But be careful of what the law says you can and cannot do in your state; without a license to practice as a lawyer you may be committing a criminal offence.
(1) Animal Legal Defence Fund. www.aldf.org.
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