What is an Animal Lawyer?
Snappy Page Essence
Animal law is the study and practice of law relating to animals, applying a country's legal system to speak for animals and their human associates and allies; highly effective for promoting legislative change to advance animal rights and welfare.
Animal law is the study and practice of law relating to animals. As an animal lawyer you apply your country's legal system to speak for animals and their human associates and allies. You might be contesting animal exploiters, defending animal rights activists and campaigning for the legal status and rights of animals. Specialising in animal law is an unusual but excellent occupation, highly effective for promoting legislative change to advance the rights and welfare of countless 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, whether as individuals, populations, species or communities.
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. The number of US animal law schools is growing and other countries are following suite.
Animal Legal Standing
Although an ostensible purpose of the law is to protect the vulnerable, this duty is not sufficiently extended to animals. Legal systems throughout the world in reality protect people and their assets. 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 animal rights. 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 brings actions to court for children.
Some animal lawyers think animals will attain better protection and appropriate rights without a change in their status as the property of people. Other animal lawyers, however, believe the only way to protect animals from human mistreatment is to abolish the status of animals as property and in 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.
In the United States animal lawyers are doing their bit for animals by collecting signatures to petition congress for an Animal Bill of Rights (1). The Bill would give animals:
Animal Legal Disputes
- The right to have their interests represented in court and defended by law.
- The right of protection from human exploitation, abuse, cruelty, neglect and ‘unnecessary’ experiments.
- The right for animals to satisfy their basic physical and mental needs.
- The right for pets to a wholesome diet and to satisfactory shelter and veterinary care.
- The right for wild animals to a ‘natural’ habitat sufficient for their ecological needs and to sustain their populations.
Protecting animals through litigation in the courts is a route that can lead to statutory reform and in countries like the United States and Britain it has never been easier for animal organisations to mount test cases.
The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) challenged a decision by the British Government. The Secretary of State had granted planning permission to the University of Cambridge for a new research facility for experimenting on primates. The plaintiff lost but the case may have been a factor that influenced the university to abandon its building project. In another case concerning BUAV vs the British Government and concerning Cambridge University, the court ruled that the Home Secretary 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 that fewer licenses may be granted to the university’s animal experimenters. BUAV based their case on undercover investigation (see Chapter 4: Undercover Investigator) that assembled video and documentary evidence for ten months at the university during 2000/1.
Wild animals also benefit from litigation in the law courts, as demonstrated by the action of Greenpeace in 2005. Greenpeace made use of the European Union’s Habitats Directive to challenge the British Government’s decision to permit trawling for sea bass within British territorial waters. Greenpeace say the trawling kills over two thousand dolphins annually in the English Channel and that under the European Union directive the British Government is obligated to protect the dolphins.
The majority of animal law cases, however, are smaller and closer to everyday life. A man in Livingston, Montana, was taken to court in 2006 for shooting and beating to death his neighbour’s cat. He was charged with cruelty to animals and with 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 provided he observed the law for that period. This is a typical 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 a dog is harassed, bites back and is then at risk of being be 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 fighting 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
- Protect the right and civil liberties of people to protest for animals peacefully.
- 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.
- Improve, reform and strengthen animal law legislation.
- Ensure that animal laws are enforced (often they are neglected) and are interpreted as intended (often they are not).
- Educate the public and welfare organisations about animal law.
- Ensure that the public debate about animal rights 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 popular channels such as radio broadcasts and the Web.
- 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. You would 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 beware 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.
A number of organisations specialise in animal law. They can best be found on the Web. A few are:
- Animal Legal Defense Fund (www.aldf.org).
They work to develop animal law in law schools.
- International Institute for Animal Law (www.animallawintl.org).
They encourage legal scholarship and advocacy skills for animals internationally.
- National Centre for Animal Law (www.lclark.edu).
Situated in Oregon, they train animal law students and are a resource for students, professors, attorneys and anyone in the US.
- Association of Lawyers for Animal Welfare.
They are solicitors, barristers and legal academics who promote animal law, share knowledge and expertise and provide information to animal campaigners and animal welfare organisations.
Waisman, Sonia S; Wagman, Bruce A & Frasch, Pamela D. Animal Law: cases and materials.
This is a well known American book for students of law.
(1) Animal Legal Defence Fund. www.aldf.org (accessed May 2008).
›› To Entries & Home