Animal protection and animal law represent the world's next social justice movement, a leading animal lawyer has told Lawyers Weekly.
Katrina Sharman, corporate counsel of animal protection institute Voiceless, said today that although the defeat of a recent referendum in Switzerland - which aimed to make compulsory legal representation for animals - is disappointing, it did not affect the momentum being gained by the movement worldwide.
"I don't think it detracts from the fact that there has been a tremendous shift in the mindset of the community, both in Australia and internationally, in terms of how animals should be treated," she said.
"It is a social justice movement, so change doesn't necessarily come overnight."
While Sharman applauded the burgeoning shift in attitudes, she criticised Australia for lagging behind its US and European counterparts on animal welfare, and highlighted the plight of animals on the production line as being prime examples of Australia's failure to move its policy in line with the rest of the world.
"Australia still remains shamelessly behind the European Union when it comes to the protection of farm animals ... In Australia, battery cages and sow stalls are perfectly legal, [while these] are being phased out in the EU ... This is disappointing for Australia, a country which calls itself a leader in animal welfare," she said.
"In some US states, there have been referendums put to the people on the issue of sow stalls. In California, Florida and Arizona the ballots have been successful. That is a really important lesson because it shows that the public will take a stand on this issue."
But despite a conspicuous absence of meaningful legislative changes in Australia thus far, Sharman is confident that animal welfare is firmly on the agenda of both the general and legal communities, and sees animal law as a fast emerging area of legal practice.
"There is growing awareness about the suffering of animals, and recognition that animals are totally at our mercy ... and that in turn has affected the quality of their lives, which until recently, the public didn't understand," she said.
"There are also a growing number of barristers and other legal professionals devoting their time, on a pro bono or reduced fee basis, to practice in this area. It is definitely on the rise."
In the meantime, Voiceless will continue to push for greater public awareness about issues concerning the ill-treatment of animals and uphold its campaign for legislative change.
To find out more about animal law, visit www.voiceless.org.au
- Claire Chaffey