It’s a Dog’s Life: Might it be Time to Give a Voice to these Sentient Beings?
In a previous contribution to this space (December 9, 2016: Pitting public safety vs. the welfare of “sentient beings”), I questioned whether the litigation brewing over breed specific legislation (“BSL”), in particular Montreal’s proposed city-wide ban on pit-bulls, might present an opportunity for our courts to read some important meaning into the status of “sentient beings” in Quebec. Recall that only recently did the legislator bestow such status on animals in the province, and still very little has been written about this new and emerging class of property.
While the BSL case is still waiting to be heard on the merits, another opportunity recently came to my attention, one that might well give some real significance and consequence to the legislator’s bold, but to date abundantly empty gesture to promote the safety and well-being of animals in Quebec. An article in The New York Times (August 27, 2017: Abused Dogs and Cats Now Have a (Human) Voice in Connecticut Courts) reported on legislation recently enacted in Connecticut that, according to U.S. legal experts, “made it the first state to allow judges to appoint lawyers and law students as advocates for dogs and cats in cases of cruelty, abuse and neglect”.
The legislation, An Act concerning Support for Cats and Dogs that are Neglected or Treated Cruelly (Public Act No. 16-30), very succinctly but elegantly provides courts in Connecticut the power to order, “whether upon [their] own initiative or upon request of a party or counsel for a party”, that a separate advocate be appointed to “represent the interests of justice”. The court appoints such advocates from a list, maintained by the Department of Agriculture, of “attorneys with knowledge of animal issues and the legal system and a list of law schools that have students, or anticipate having students, with an interest in animal issues and the legal system”. The NYT article reports that, practically speaking, the “advocates view their role as reinforcing prosecutors who are overburdened with cases or may consider crimes against animals to be less of a priority”.
Not only is it neat, this law is progressive and ground-breaking on multiple fronts. First, as was pointed out in the NYT article, the concept of giving more of a voice to victims of crime is gaining traction as a rising movement in the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, across both the U.S. and Canada, judges routinely appoint advocates to speak on behalf of children or those no longer capable of speaking for themselves. If we have arrived at the place where animals no longer are to be viewed as furniture or toasters, but rather as “sentient beings having biological needs”, is it not just and right that we give them a voice – one they can’t otherwise express – when they are the victims of cruelty, abuse or neglect? It seems logical, no?
I also find interesting and innovative the concept of including law students in the list of potential advocates for the animals. What a glorious opportunity for incipient young lawyers not only to contribute to a legal system they aspire to one day join, but also to get some real exposure to and practical experience with the profession they have chosen to pursue. And what better way to do it than in an area they are already clearly devoted to, and where their involvement can have a real and immediate impact on creatures they care so deeply about? This is a win for the animals and for the advocates.
Both the purpose and mechanism of this legislation is refreshingly novel. And I see in it an attractive opportunity to meaningfully contribute to Quebec’s apparent commitment to bolstering the safety and well-being of animals in the province. Should the government choose to adopt similar legislation, I am sure there would be an abundance of candidates barking away to get their names on the list of approved advocates. After all, is it not our duty as lawyers – at least those pleaders among us – to speak loudest on behalf of those who have no voice at all?
Food for thought…and maybe even action!
 Article 898.1 CCQ “Animals are not things. They are sentient beings and have biological needs. (…)”