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Practice Profile: Animal law - the 'next social justice movement'

Practice Profile: Animal law - the 'next social justice movement'

Eight years ago the field of animal law did not exist, but in 2011 more and more lawyers are joining the fight against animal cruelty, writes Briana Everett.

Eight years ago the field of animal law did not exist, but in 2011 more and more lawyers are joining the fight against animal cruelty, writes Briana Everett.

DON'T FENCE ME IN: The Australian animal law movement is growing with increased interest and support from firms and educators.
The recent controversy surrounding Australia's live export trade and the cases of animal cruelty exposed by ABC Television's Four Corners earlier this year has led to a renewed interest in animal protection, attracting some much-needed attention to the laws surrounding animal welfare in Australia and overseas.

But while the live export debate has dominated news and conversations across Australia following the Government's June decision to temporarily ban the live export of cattle, the issue represents just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to animal cruelty issues currently being tackled by those within the animal protection area.

According to Brian Sherman, the co-founder and managing director of animal protection institute Voiceless, although the live export of animals is no doubt cruel, factory farming is responsible for the "largest and most hidden animal abuses" in Australia.

"We [Voiceless] focus on two areas - factory farming and the kangaroo industry," Sherman explained at a recent seminar at the New South Wales Law Society, which formed part of the 2011 Voiceless Lecture Series.

"Factory farming causes the most suffering to the largest number of animals in Australia. Some 480 million 'sentient beings' are locked in sheds or cages, barely big enough to fit their bodies. They're deprived of personal space. Hundreds of millions of emotionally complex, intelligent beings, like pigs and chickens, are effectively locked away. They never see the sun, feel the earth under their feet, nurture their young, build a nest, forage for food or socialise, as nature intended."

At the seminar, Sherman addressed an audience of academics, law students and lawyers who form part of the expanding animal law faction - an area which was described by then president of the Australian Law Reform Commission, professor David Weisbrot, as the next social justice movement.

Evidence of this momentum, as noted by Sherman, is the increasing number of animal law programs being offered by Australian universities.

In 2011, nine Australian law schools now offer an animal law program, including Australian National University, Griffith University and the University of Sydney, with a tenth law school - at the University of Technology Sydney - to offer its first animal law course from 2012.

Legal counsel for Voiceless Ruth Hatten - previously a lawyer at Clayton Utz and prior to that a lawyer at DLA Phillips Fox (now DLA Piper) - first got involved in animal law three or four years ago and says the increased number of animal law programs on offer at Australian law schools is a positive sign, however she hopes this number increases further.

"It's really good but I'm hoping to get some more [universities] on board ... The hardest thing, and really the first hurdle, is to find someone who's interested in teaching the subject. We probably get an email every week from students or people who are already practising asking, 'Where can I study animal law?' So there's definitely interest," says Hatten, noting the growth of animal law in the United States, where it is taught at over 110 law schools.

"It's grown as a practice area but there's only one firm in the country that physically practices in animal law and that's TLG Lawyers. There are not many"

Ruth Hatten, legal counsel, Voiceless

In addition to the growth of animal law courses, Hatten adds that more and more animal law groups, such as the NSW Law Society Animal Law Committee and the Barristers Animal Welfare Panel, are popping up across the country, indicative of the increasing dedication to the promotion of animal welfare amongst the legal industry.

For love, not money

As the popularity of the study of animal law rapidly grows, animal law as a practice area is still relatively small - somewhat limited by the lack of paid work (compared to the pro bono work) which is available primarily in the animal cruelty area.

"It's grown as a practice area but there's only one firm in the country that physically practices in animal law and that's TLG Lawyers [now Couper Geysen - Family and Animal Law]. There are not many, but there are rumours of another firm ... It's good and shows that it has generated from practising lawyers who are interested in the area," says Hatten.

"You've got the growth of animal law groups in the country and the pro bono opportunities if you work in some of the bigger firms. When you see the growth of that [work] within the bigger firms, it's encouraging, and it's also a great opportunity for lawyers who work in those firms to start doing the work when there's a limited number of animal lawyer jobs out there."

While Hatten advises lawyers wanting to break into the animal law area to "skill-up, go to the seminars, go to the workshops and read the text books and articles", opportunities are seemingly limited.

"People need animal lawyers. We had Dusty the dog - the one that got put down because of the Hendra virus - as a client"

Tracy-Lynne Geysen, principal, Couper Geysen - Family and Animal Law

"Tracy-Lynne Geysen is actually practising in the area, albeit [under] restriction to companion animals which is understandable," says Hatten. "I think that's where the trend is going to start because at least you've got paying clients."

While paid work in the area is limited, there is a substantial amount of pro bono work stemming from organisations such as BLEATS - Brisbane Lawyers Educating & Advocating for Tougher Sentences - which was founded by Geysen in 2007 and focuses on Queensland's Animal Care and Protection Act 2001.

Geysen, principal of Couper Geysen - Family and Animal Law, is one of the few lawyers in Australia practising as an animal lawyer, having opened her own family and animal law practice in August 2009.

"We're so busy with our family matters ... Because we haven't had a chance to market [our animal law practice] it hasn't grown as fast as I would have liked, but having said that, it's grown faster than I expected given that it is so new to Australia," says Geysen, adding that it was a Voiceless seminar in May 2009 which motivated her to set up an animal law practice.

"People need animal lawyers. We had Dusty the dog - the one that got put down because of the Hendra virus - [as a client]. They came to us through somebody who knew somebody. So the fact that somebody has heard of us suggests we should be doing stuff out there and there's definitely a need for it."

Not surprisingly, as one of the few firms that practices animal law, Geysen receives a large number of applications for jobs - almost every week - however her animal law practice is still in its early days, dominated by work in relation to Queensland's dangerous dog legislation.

"So many people want to practice in animal law and people just love animals. There are lots of people that want to do it," she says, adding that down the track her practice will hopefully have the capacity to take on graduate lawyers in the animal law area.

"We're probably only doing about 10 per cent animal law. The idea is that we eventually want to be doing 50-50. We've got five solicitors doing full-time family law but I definitely want at least another two by say, the end of two years' time, on purely animal law."

An uphill battle

While Hatten and Geysen love what they do, they both admit it's a particularly challenging area of law.

"I'm spending my job now doing something that is so close to my heart, which I haven't been able to do on a Monday to Friday basis ever in my career as a lawyer or at all," says Hatten, who has worked in private practice at mid and top-tier firms, as well as for the government .

"It's fantastic to be able to dedicate my professional time to something I'm truly passionate about. On the downside, it can be quite hard at times because it is very stressful. I find it more stressful than my time as a lawyer in private practice because of the emotional connection."

Confronting the government and large industry groups and writing submissions for reform is a regular part of Hatten's role as legal counsel for Voiceless, but as she points out, achieving change can be a very long, uphill battle.

"There are so many issues. You have the conflict between industry and government, you've got inadequate regulations, you've got a lack of transparency ... there are a lot of issues," she says.

Some of those issues, for which Voiceless has provided submissions to the Government, include the Greens' private members bill to ban live exports and the Independents' bill to phase out live exports - to be debated in Parliament this week (18 August) - as well as the commercial harvest and management of kangaroos and the Greens' Truth in Labelling [Free-range Eggs] Bill 2011, which was introduced this month.

"This gives a legal definition for free-range egg production systems. It has been introduced as a means of protecting free-range farmers who are competing with cage-egg farmers. It will enforce labelling requirements for free range, barn laid and cage eggs," says Hatten.

"I think it's definitely got more chance of being passed than the live export bills because free-range eggs have been an issue for a very long time. This bill is actually in support of free-range farmers, who should be supported."

>> Click here to read about issues affecting the legal profession in our in depth Practice Profile series

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Practice Profile: Animal law - the 'next social justice movement'
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