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Law reform a matter of all creatures great and small

Law reform a matter of all creatures great and small

The evolving interest in animal law in legal circles could hold the potential for dramatic change in the treatment of

The evolving interest in animal law in legal circles could hold the potential for dramatic change in the treatment of animals across the agricultural sector, writes

Angela Priestley

Last week, a room of distinguished legal alumni participated in a passionate discussion regarding animal welfare and the potential for law reform to aid in animal protection. The room, a lecture theatre within the new law school at Sydney University, was close to capacity. For more than two hours, the discussion debated whether law reform surrounding the interests of animals might be the great social justice issue that defines our age.

More than half a billion animals are raised in factory farming conditions in Australia, according to animal welfare organisation Voiceless.

In recent decades a revolution in the way Australians consume food - and in what they expect to pay for it - has pushed demand for animal products to a scale that cannot be met by traditional farming environments. A large proportion of the meat produced in Australia comes from animals who spend their lives in intensive confinement: Sows live from near birth to death in gestation crates, chickens are raised on the space of an A4 piece of paper, calves are separated from their mothers within days of their birth.

Yet during this period of food revolution, laws protecting animal welfare - particularly animals in factory farms - have hardly changed.

Animal law as a field of study, though - as one that lawyers and law students alike are committing to - has evolved dramatically.

Last week's discussion formed part of the third Annual Animal Law Lecture Series hosted by Voiceless.

In the three years since the series' inception, the interest in animal law has grown considerably. There are now six animal law courses offered at universities across Australia, compared with just one in 2006. There is an animal law journal in circulation, and potential reform around animal law has been slated, after the president of the Australian Law Reform Commission, David Weisbrot, predicted in 2007 that animal law reform could be the next great "social justice movement."

This year, former justice of the High Court Michael Kirby reaffirmed his interest in the area. He opened the Voiceless series by launching Australia's first animal law text book, Animal Law in Australasia.

In his speech, Kirby reminded the audience of his long-held interest in the welfare of farmed animals, and the backlash such interest has received from the agricultural sector. He recalled a speech he gave almost 15 years ago, in a location he could not recall, at which he upset farming interests. "I had the temerityto suggest that there was an ethical, a moral, and perhaps a future legal issue in the way we in Australia deal with farming within the very borders of our huge, dry and waterless continental country," he said.

"They said I was out of touch, I had no idea, I was unrealistic, I was irrational, I was emotional and I was getting carried away."

Kirby said that since then much has changed in regards to the public's interest in the welfare of farmed animals. The RSPCA, for one, extended its protection service from domestic animals - mainly dogs and cats - to include farmed animals.

Still, Kirby believes, the general public is unaware about the full extent of just what occurs in intensive farming practices. He said that with enough empirical research - as well as scholarship - the foundations of knowledge could be formed to bring about change in the future.

Weisbrot said that if he could achieve anything in the area of animal law reform, it would be developing a national anti-cruelty law that addresses animal welfare, rather than just laws condoning routine agricultural practices that have become accepted as the norm. He believes that the laws we do have, particularly the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 in NSW, are misleading.

"The loopholes are so large that you could drive a truck through it, tragically," he said. He added that the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 may have all the buzzwords that appear to address animal welfare, but the loopholes exist in the fact that the law says you are not criminally responsible for such actions if you are acting in accordance with routine agricultural or animal husbandry practices.

"If you just look on its face value at the law we have, it looks like we've got what we want," said Weisbrot. "We've got something that's humane, that carries a significant penalty and is, therefore, a disincentive - but really it's quite fraudulent in its application."

Peter Sankoff, one of the two editors on the Animal Law in Australasia book, and law lecturer at Auckland University, noted that New Zealand has some of the most modern laws in the world for dealing with animal welfare, and yet what many people would consider "cruel" practices in factory farms continue.

"How can that be?" asked Sankoff. "The law has become incredibly complex in trying to decipher what cruelty actually means. We use these euphemisms of 'cruelty' and 'humane', but, really, what the law does is it subtly deprives these words of meaning."

International guest speaker Bruce Wagman, from San Francisco-based law firm Schiff Hardin, reminded the audience that like his home country, Australia was lacking the necessary legal instruments protecting farmed animals from cruelty. He says that, specifically, Australia has no umbrella federal anti-cruelty laws protecting farmed animals. "People find that shocking because they think somebody must be watching out," he said.

After undertaking a considerable amount of pro bono work over the years, Wagman these days devotes his entire practice to animal law. His clients, he says, are animals, and it's by getting creative that he has been able to, in some instances, seek their protection through elements of state and federal laws.

Wagman has lost many cases, but is rarely disheartened by the outcomes. "We are trying to change the world here, we are going to lose," he said. "Every social justice reform movement, every civil rights movement has a lot of losses before it breaks through."

Kirby, too, hinted at a social justice reform movement: "When, in the 19th Century, people said 'You're not going to be able to change the laws around slavery, you're not going to be able to remove the cruelty to slaves', a great civil movement began."

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