The starting point in civil claims regarding animals is always that animals are “property” under the law, and as such they have “owners”. Animals do not have any rights themselves, but instead the civil courts will consider damage to an “owned” animal as harm to the “owner”. We are mindful that this is not the language that many of our clients would choose to use, but we use it here, and in our communications with our clients, to the extent that we must do so in order to explain the legal position.
We have previously published an article with our top tips for bringing a criminal prosecution where an animal crime has been committed (you can read that article here), but sometimes the criminal courts are not the appropriate forum to resolve a dispute relating to an animal. In some cases, no crime has been committed, but nevertheless there has been some wrongdoing. For example, this could be a vet who has provided negligent veterinary treatment, a person or company whose negligence resulted in the death or injury of a companion animal, or an animal being wrongly kept from their legal “owner”. In relation to the latter example, we will only be able to advise where there is an animal welfare concern, not where it is purely an “ownership” dispute. We have also advised on matters relating to hunt trespass and vegan rights, among other types of civil dispute.
1. Engage a solicitor at an early stage
It is not always possible to predict that a dispute is going to result in legal action, but the earlier you engage a solicitor, the better, even if it is just to seek initial guidance while you navigate the early stages of the dispute.
In some cases, it may be that a veterinary report or an autopsy is required in order for a claim to have good prospects of success at trial, and the longer you wait the less conclusive that report can be. You may need advice against making inadvertent admissions that could be used against you at trial. You may also be advised on what evidence to gather and how to store it to give it the best chance of being admissible in court.
Finally, many types of legal claim are subject to a limitation period, which is usually six years but it can be more or less than this. After the expiry of the relevant period, it will not usually be possible to bring a claim.
2. Retain all evidence
It is difficult to predict what evidence may become useful during the course of the proceedings, and as such we would always suggest retaining everything that is relevant to the dispute. This could be correspondence, social media posts, a contract, phone records, clinical records or physical evidence, among other things.
If you commence legal proceedings, you will also have obligations to disclose certain material to the other side, and they will have similar obligations to you. As such, it is important to retain all relevant evidence so that it can be considered for disclosure.
3. Make contemporaneous notes
Sometimes there can be a significant amount of time between a dispute arising and it being considered by a court. Contemporaneous notes can act as an aide-mémoire and help give the court confidence in your recollection when questioned in court. It also assists your lawyer in putting the case together if they can understand precisely what happened and when.
We would suggest making a note of any significant events, dates, costs incurred as a result of the wrongdoing, and any effect that the wrongdoing has had on you.
4. Start thinking about funding at an early stage
As a non-profit law firm, we are able to charge far lower than commercial rates, which makes our services accessible to as many people as possible. However, this won’t be true of every firm and in any event the cost of taking a civil claim all the way to a contested trial can nevertheless be substantial. It may be possible to minimise those costs or explore alternative and less costly options, but it is with regret that it is not always possible to take a matter to trial without funds in place. You may have success with Crowdfunding or third party funding to help with legal costs.
5. Manage your expectations
This can often be a difficult thing to do, especially where companion animals have experienced something horrific, yet, regrettably, it does not always follow that a legal claim has good prospects of success. As mentioned above, the starting point is always that animals are considered property under the law, so are more comparable to an inanimate appliance than a human, as far as the law is concerned, this may reduce the prospects of success and any compensation that may be awarded. Whilst many do not view animals this way, these are established legal principles, and any changes to those principles will likely only happen incrementally.
How can we help?
If you think you have a potential civil claim, we would always suggest speaking to a solicitor so that they can advise you on the strength of your claim. At Advocates for Animals, we have specific expertise in making creative use of existing legal principles in order to help our clients make the best use of the law to help animals. We are intensely aware that the property status does not align with the views of many of our clients, and oftentimes we work with those clients to come up with creative arguments to try and persuade judges to consider animals differently.
This post is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you require legal advice on animal protection laws please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.