Advocates for Animals

Making full use of the law to protect animals

Blog: Animals on Trial


As the argument for animal rights and personhood grows louder, this week's guest writer Constance Collard explores what animal legal identity meant in days gone by.

A common question that is asked by people not familiar with animal law, is if animals were legal persons should they also be held accountable for their actions?

This is explored in jest, but there is certainly historical precedence for animals having legal culpability. The practice of animal trials in medieval Europe, France in particular, is well documented.

In The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, E.P. Evans gives the example of a sow and donkey that were condemned to be hanged, but, after an appeal and retrial, had their sentence amended to a ‘simple knock on the head’.

In the United Kingdom, the doctrine of deodand held animals responsible for causing harm to humans. Blackstone, in the 19th century, wrote of this practice, saying: ‘if a horse or any other animal, of its own motion, kills an infant or an adult, they shall in either case be forfeited as deodand.’

These animal trials were taken very seriously. When a pig was hanged for biting the arm of a child in Bavaria in 1576, the hangman was banished from the town as he had not respected proper judicial procedure.

Imposing human morality on non-human species may not have been the result of any deeply held respect for animal identities, but the punishment of animals necessitated some consideration of their legal responsibilities. As the animals were morally culpable, they had a legal identity.

What about now?

Despite a raft of welfare legislation, animals are still seen as mere objects and property in the eyes of the law. The knock on effect of this classification is that when in conflict, human interest overwhelmingly trumps the interests of an animal.

How can we change the property status?

One solution to this disparity would be to provide animals with legal personhood, this was discussed in detail in Advocates for Animals blog.

Law for the protection of animal welfare is undeniably important, and the boundaries of this area are being rapidly tested through the work of legal organisations like Advocates for Animals, but do the provisions that are designed simply for the protection of animals only go so far? Is there potential for animals to be recognised as legal individuals, with the ability to enforce their right to act in accordance with their own wants and needs?

Varying degrees of animal personhood are popping up over the world all the time. In July 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court in India accorded the status of ‘legal person or entity’ to animals in the state, saying ‘they have a distinct persona’ with corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person, as reported by the Times of India.

The consequences of changed legal status for animals could include the right for someone acting on the animals behalf to challenge abuse and negligence., the right to own property, something which is already possibly under US trust law and the right to receive damages, something which was attempted in the case of Justice the Horse in the US. These benefits may have a flipside however, as we would not want to continue the medieval practice of charging and sentencing animals as criminals!

We are grateful to everyone who contributes to the Advocates for Animals blog. Blogs should not be taken as legal advice nor do they necessarily reflect the views of the firm

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