Animal rights law

How to deploy your legal mind if you care more for badgers than bankers

Everyone knows the old adage: Britain is a nation of animal lovers. For many folk, the sight of a collie bounding and frisking through a field is a vision of poetry in motion.

We’re soppy about spaniels and crazy for kittens. Most of us will whoop with delight at a Youtube video of a slow loris being tickled or a tabby cat befriending a raccoon.

But cuteness aside, what about the legal status of animals? What about the thousands of creatures that end up in curries and Greggs sausage rolls across the country? Do the big-eyed furry critters we adore warrant more protection and respect than the hoofed, giblety or wild ones?

And of course the domestic pets we dote on are essentially vulnerable – instead of cohabiting with a loving owner, they can fall into the hands of humans who abandon, abuse and brutalize them. A cursory glance at the tabloid press will offer up horrific stories of this nature as well as heart-warming tales of cats who use the bus service in Dorset.

If these are the sorts of issues that ruffle your feathers and get your goat, then you might want to consider what role a lawyer can play in furthering the cause of animal welfare.

In this article we start by delving into the history of animal rights law in the UK, before talking about some animal rights advocates and telling you how you can get involved in the animal rights fight.


Walk with the animals... 

The British sensibility has historically been one of progressive compassion towards animals (leaving aside for a moment the upper-class penchant for fox/otter/badger/hare hunting).

Britain was the first country to pass animal welfare legislation with the 1822 Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act, sometimes known as Martin’s Law after the Irish MP Richard Martin who steered it through parliament.

But it was a pioneering and eccentric lawyer who began the drive for animal rights legislation proper. Lord Thomas Erskine was born in 1750 and worked as as barrister before becoming Lord Chancellor in 1806.

He shared his professional and personal life with a number of animal pals, including a large Newfoundland dog called Toss who would sit in on consultations in chambers wearing a wig and advocate's bands. He also had a pet goose, a macaw and two leeches.

It was a pioneering and eccentric lawyer who began the drive for animal rights legislation.

Erskine's Bill for Preventing Malicious and Wanton Cruelty to Animals made it through the Lords but was rejected by the Commons.

Erskine's views were ahead of his time. At the second reading of the Bill in 1809 he said in a speech: 'Almost every sense bestowed upon Man is equally bestowed upon [animals] – seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, the sense of pain and pleasure, and passions of love and anger, sensibility to kindness, and pangs from unkindness and neglect, are inseparable characteristics of their natures as much as of our own'.

Although gratuitous cruelty to animals is now illegal, Erskine's oration still resonates when we consider the deficiencies inherent in English animal welfare law.

Even today the law only prohibits the infliction of unnecessary suffering on animals. Thus market forces prevail if there is seen to be a legitimate (and profitable) human interest in keeping livestock in cramped conditions, pumping them full of hormones or never letting them see the light of day.

And of course, enforcing the law even when abject cruelty is evident is a difficult issue when the victim is essentially voiceless and viewed as an object.


Talk with the animals... 

A ray of hope and inspiration comes in the form of the extraordinarily dapper Antoine Goetschel, a Swiss lawyer and director of the Foundation for the Animal in the Law (Stiftung für das Tier im Recht).

Goetschel's private practice combines family law with animal matters, but from 2007 until 2010 he held the unique position of animal advocate for the canton of Zurich. His mission? “To greatly increase the number of prosecutions for criminal cruelty to animals,” he told us.

That such a position actually existed attests to Switzerland's progressive ethos in this regard, leaving Britain – the nation of animal lovers and Doctor Dolittle– way behind. Indeed in 1992 the Swiss constitution was amended to enshrine the dignity of animals and recognise them as 'beings' and not 'things'.

Goetschel again: “In my global comparison of animal rights legislation in more than thirty countries, I noticed that animal protection in the UK is not better than anywhere else in the world. Animal welfare in the UK has no constitutional status and is therefore ranked behind the fundamental freedoms of people. The law still sees the animal as an object and a systematic representation of the animal in criminal and administrative cases does not exist.”

“Awareness has to be raised and attitudes shifted from 'anti-cruelty' to 'pro-dignity'.”

It's hard to imagine an English lawyer having a large pike as a client – but Goetschel has done just that, representing the interests of the fish posthumously, after an amateur angler boasted to a newspaper about bludgeoning the creature to death.

There's more than one trailblazing lawyer out there. Back in 2007, American legal scholar Steven M. Wise set up the Nonhuman Rights Project to work towards obtaining legal personhood for animal species.

Wise recently filed cases on behalf of several chimpanzees. Despite the fact that they display cognitive abilities similar to our own, chimpanzees are still kept in captivity around the world. This, Wise argues, is a violation of common-law equality.

How does Antoine Goetschel think animal welfare legislation can be advanced in Switzerland and beyond? “Responsibility to protect animals has to be taken by society as a whole rather than being left to animal welfare organisations. First of all, awareness has to be raised and attitudes shifted from 'anti-cruelty' to 'pro-dignity'.”

Goetschel continues: “Where animals are produced and used for financial benefits, such as in agriculture and medical sciences, strong ethical values are needed. Once a nation has progressed morally, there is a higher motivation for politicians to introduce credible laws in favour of the animal.”


Practice law with the animals... 

Young lawyers can help to nurture animal-orientated ethics from the grass roots, for example by joining the Association of Lawyers for Animal Welfare (ALAW).

According to its website ALAW sees its role as 'pioneering a better legal framework for animals and ensuring that the existing law is applied properly.' One of its trustees, Doughty Street barrister Paula Sparks, told us that “it also has an educative role, teaching professionals and the public about the law.”

Members can be solicitors, barristers, trainees, pupils or legal academics. You can find out more about membership here. The organisation also has a relatively new student group, which helps to create the ALAW Journal.

“I would suggest exploring career opportunities with some of the larger animal protection groups who have in-house legal teams.

What advice does Sparks have for the young lawyer with an interest in animal welfare? “I would suggest exploring career opportunities with some of the larger animal protection groups who have in-house legal teams. For those interested in criminal law a career prosecuting cruelty offences may be of interest. Others – particularly those who have an interest in wildlife and the countryside – find that a career in environmental law can be rewarding.”

Specialisation, warns Sparks, is not often an option at an early stage: her own practice consists primarily of (human) medical negligence and inquest work. “Many of ALAW's members are lawyers who work in disparate fields who use their spare time to help with animal law related issues. There is always scope to use valuable legal skills for the benefit of animals.”

You don't have to be anything resembling a one-trick pony. Just look at ALAW member Gwendolen Morgan. A solicitor at Bindmans, Morgan's practice includes a broad range of public law and human rights cases, with animal welfare issues forming a significant part of the mix.

She's acted for The Badger Trust in opposition to the badger cull as well as advising organisations like Secret World Wildlife Rescue and the Humane Society International. More recently she made headlines representing David Miranda (partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald) after his much-publicised detention at Heathrow.

One solicitor maintaining an animal-related practice is ALAW member (and former director) David Thomas, who works as a legal adviser to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV).

Thomas deals with “all aspects of the law touching on animal welfare campaigning.” This includes “giving advice; taking test cases; intervening in cases brought by others around the world; using legal arguments to remove barriers to positive change and to achieve maximum protection for animals; using freedom of information laws to prise information from often reluctant governments, international institutions and other public bodies; advising on undercover investigations; drafting legislation and using various ‘soft law’ fora to ensure as level a playing field as possible for campaign messages.”

Thomas agrees that it can be harrowing to face up to widespread animal suffering. How does he cope? “The trick, I think, is to try and channel such emotions into determination to do something to remedy the situation, with persistence and creativity. I don’t expose myself to more than needed to do my job properly.”

“Animal welfare law is not for the faint-hearted”

Like Paula Sparks, he advises interested students to “obtain as broad a grounding in law as possible and not to specialise too soon. No area of law is an island and to become an effective animal welfare lawyer one needs to understand and have experience of many other areas of law, especially public law.”

“Animal welfare law is not for the faint-hearted,” he continues. “It encompasses EU and other international law and can be very complicated, though intellectually stimulating.”

Despite the need to remain robust and “be prepared for many setbacks,” this is a job that can be “hugely rewarding – though not in financial terms! Successes can make a big difference to the lives of animals, indirectly helping humankind become more enlightened in its approach to the just treatment of weaker members of society.”

You can read more about a career in animal law on ALAW's website.


Animals on the legal scene

Step behind the Royal Courts of Justice for a swift G&T at the Seven Stars pub and you might be joined by a highly important member of staff: Ray Brown, a laid-back black and white cat in an Elizabethan ruff. Wander into the Temple and you might spot Hunter the ginger garden cat trotting out of a pre-eminent commercial set.

Meanwhile over at 2 Bedford Row Michael Wolkind QC – one of the UK’s top criminal barristers – is following in the fine footsteps of Tom Erskine by significantly increasing the canine contingent at chambers.

Wolkind takes the role of “lead” counsel to another level. His four-year-old cockapoo Milo is often present during video conferences with clients. “Once he was uncharacteristically quiet underneath the table but then he popped up and waved his legs around at the chap. I was thinking, if I lose this appeal this client’s going to say 'it’s that QC’s fault – he had his dog with him'. But we won, and I like to think it was due to Milo’s presence.”

Wolkind has been known to take a dog into the Old Bailey, but that was “about 15 years ago when the security wasn’t as strict” and he admits that he’s yet to “smuggle a dog into the courtroom.”

At the law library a wiry-haired dog called Monty is helping students with... well, the whole business of being an over-achieving Yale law student.

Across the pond at Yale Law School, our American cousins have taken an approach to the relationship between animals and lawyers of which Dr Frasier Crane would greatly approve. At the law library a wiry-haired dog called Monty is helping students with... well, the whole business of being an over-achieving Yale law student.

Monty’s first job was killing rats in a High Wycombe barn, but a more edifying and less violent vocation soon called. Having already qualified as a therapy dog in the UK, he gained his US credentials shortly after moving to Yale with his owner, law librarian Julian Aiken.

At certain times during term, Monty is available to “meet, hang out and eat cookies” with stressed-out law students. As you might expect, the response has been “universally positive.”


The story of Monty the dog shows us how animals are helping humans to become better lawyers. In turn shouldn't humans think seriously about using their role as lawyers to help the voiceless and vulnerable creatures in our midst, whether furry, fuzzy, feathered, scaly or scuttling?


This feature was first published in our December 2013 newsletter.