The stories of “paw-ternity leave” or “Pet-Nups” might elicit some laughs but it does give rise to the serious question of a pet’s legal status. In family law, pet custody cases are only increasing in popularity but what place do they have in civil law?
Whilst people are increasingly thinking of their pets as family, in a strictly legal sense pets are classed as property (which might seem anachronistic to pet lovers out there). It is important for pet owners to understand the legal implications this has, as many pet owners are oblivious to the legal obligations pet ownership brings – which can be a costly mistake.
Scenario 1 – your dog escapes from your garden and runs out in front of a car. Understandably, you are devastated. Then, imagine you are pursued for the repair costs of the damage to the car.
Scenario 2 – you answer the door to your postman. Your dog jumps up in excitement and knocks the postman down your front stairs. You are then pursued for a personal injury claim.
The above may sound unbelievable at first but it’s not: it is a very real possibility. In relation to scenario 1, under the Road Traffic Act ‘a person who causes or permits a dog to be on a designated road without the dog being held on a lead is guilty of an offence’. Under both scenarios the dog’s owner would be liable for any action of damages pursued. This is due to dogs being their owner’s property and, therefore, responsibility.
On the flip side of the above, there is more emotive issue for pet owners by their pets being classed as property. This is when a pet dies as a result of being in (not causing) an accident. Understandably for many pet owners it would be almost impossible to put a price on their pet. Who are we to value what a pet added to their owner’s life? As property this is exactly what is done. In a similar way as to how a car is valued, the same is done in deciding the dog’s value. It is decided based on various factors, including the dog’s purchase price, breed, age and health. Assistance dogs would be valued higher due to their training and special traits.
For the estimated 8.5 million dog lovers in the UK, the above may make for depressing reading. However, there is a movement towards viewing pets as legal “hybrids”; a form between property in the traditional sense and personhood. In France, pets are now the proud owners of a new legal status, ‘sentient beings’. In Alaska, divorce courts now require to take “into consideration the well-being of the animal”. We’ll be watching carefully to see what happens with the UK’s stance on a pet’s legal status. For now, it could arguably be considered a “ruff” deal.