Beyond Property — Access to Justice for Animals

Recognizing animals as someone rather than something

Beyond Property — Access to Justice for Animals

Animals are slowly being recognized as more than mere property under the law.

This BarTalk issue, focusing on the Law of Ownership, fits seamlessly with the topic of animals, the law, and access to justice. Why? Because under Canadian law, animals are property, they are owned, not unlike furniture.

Deeming animals property creates access to justice barriers, leaving animals vulnerable to abuse.

Fortunately, societal and scientific views have progressed over the decades recognizing the importance of animals, seeing them as sentient, often as family members. We are starting to see shifts in the law where animals are in some instances, being understood by the law as more than inanimate property, as the sentient beings they are, granting greater access to justice, and obtaining stronger legal protections. Animal sentience laws embrace the notion that animals are individuals worthy of access to justice, to legal protections, and are on the rise globally. (For more information on animal sentience laws and property, see Recognizing animals in Canada as sentient in the CBA National).

When we talk about justice initiatives, both humans and animals need to be included. A recent example of access to justice for animals and their humans is Canada’s first Animal Law Pro Bono Clinic (“ALPC”) that we established in Vancouver in 2020 with the help of the Law Students Legal Advice Program, our Allard animal law students, and Professor Harris. The ALPC is an access to justice triumph for animals.

Another example of the law recognizing animals as more than inanimate property can be found in a unanimous 2021 Alberta Court of Appeal judgement. Animals were referred to as sentient beings who themselves can be victims of violence with the court stating: “...I agree that animals, sentient beings that experience pain and suffering, must be treated as living victims and not chattels....” (R v. Chen 2021 ABCA 382 para. 27). Much of the groundwork for cases like this stem from Canada’s watershed animal law dissent concerning Lucy the elephant, in Reece v. Edmonton (City), 2011 ABCA 238.

We are working toward and sometimes succeeding in having animals’ status recognized as more than objects, to acknowledge their interests. In other words, recognizing an animal as someone rather than something, but to be clear, animal law cases dealing with cruelty, pet custody, animals in condos, dogs on death row, intensive farming, and more, are all still subject to laws rooted in ownership principles rather than framing animals as sentient beings, as individuals in their own right.

Currently, animals do not have legal standing, but game-changing federal legislation that was recently re-introduced, could alter that in a limited way. An Act known as the Jane Goodall Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act (great apes, elephants, and certain other animals) could be a landmark legislative access to justice win for hundreds of animals and it establishes limited legal standing in court for some animals.

The Honourable Chief Justice of BC, Robert Bauman, provided a snapshot of his views on the rule of law, access to justice, and animals in a new animal law textbook:

The rule of law requires that ordinary people can access the justice system to enforce their rights; …This is so in all areas of law, and the law relating to animals is no different. ... — whether we are talking about animals as pets, animals as part of our industrial food supply system, animals as sentient beings in need of protection from inhumane treatment or even animals involved in criminal offences. (Page 476 Canadian Animal Law [Lexis-Nexis 2021] V. Victoria Shroff).

Access to justice for all sentient beings is both possible and necessary. We are inching slowly forward where animals are increasingly being recognized in law as more than something that is owned.

Find out how animal law could intersect with your practice by attending CLEBC’s April 12th Animal Law 101 2022 Webinar.