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Growing awareness of the practice of animal law

Focus on: Legal Specialists & Boutiques
|Written By Michael McKiernan

Jennifer Friedman has had to forge her own path when it comes to establishing a career in animal law. The lifelong animal lover had her heart set on becoming a lawyer from an early age.

“I took criminology as one of my undergraduate majors, and it came to me that I could combine those two passions in a legal career, to somehow speak for those who can’t speak for themselves,” she says.

However, it turned out that was easier said than done, with barely a handful of lawyers practising any kind of animal law in Canada whose career path she could use as a template for her own.

Friedman’s law school offered no courses that touched on animal law, and she couldn’t even find a suitable professor to supervise a paper she wanted to write on the subject. After graduating, she started out in administrative law, but she kept looking for ways to work her true love into her practice.

Her persistence paid off just more than a decade ago when Friedman landed the role of general counsel at the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the first time the organization ever hired an in-house lawyer. But even after building that experience, Friedman still encountered skepticism from other lawyers about her practice area. When she first proposed the creation of an animal law practice section at the Ontario Bar Association in 2007, she didn’t get the response she was looking for.  

“I was laughed at; there was no appetite for the idea whatsoever,” Friedman says.

A decade on, after a spell at the Ontario Racing Commission as its litigation counsel, Friedman has established her own private practice devoted exclusively to animal law.

“I’ve definitely seen a shift that signals to me that people are recognizing it as a real discipline. I don’t get laughed at anymore, and members of the judiciary take these cases more seriously now,” she says.

The OBA formed its own animal law practice section in 2012. When Ottawa University launched its own animal law course last year, part-time professor Nicholas Jobidon says he had never seen a response like it.

“It filled up immediately, with a long waiting list,” says Jobidon, who taught the third-year seminar class along with a former student who had pitched him the idea in the first place.

The class focused largely on animal rights in Quebec, where lawmakers had recently amended the province’s civil code to categorize animals as “sentient beings” with biological needs.

Although the definition still brings animals under the broad category of property and doesn’t apply to farm animals or some wild species, the law did open the door to large fines and potential jail time for animal cruelty.    

Friedman says Canada’s Criminal Code would benefit from similar amendments, since its animal cruelty provisions currently fall under the portion relating to property crime. During her time at the OSPCA, Friedman says, this made it difficult for her to achieve meaningful sentences when prosecuting cases.  

“That would be a good step, although I don’t think it’s likely to happen too quickly,” she says.

The traditional legal view of animals and pets also causes problems for clients who come to Friedman with family law-style disputes involving the fate of the family cats or dogs in a divorce.

She encourages parties to come to an agreement themselves or to enter mediation, since the courts are generally unsympathetic to litigation over the issue.

In May, in the case of R. v. Krajnc, Ontario Provincial Court Justice David Harris acquitted animal rights protestor Anita Krajnc of mischief to property after she fed water to pigs in transit to a slaughterhouse.

Leading the charge for further legislative changes in the realm of animal law is the legal campaign group Animal Justice. Its executive director, Camille Labchuk, has also managed to parlay a passion for animal activism into a legal career.

Initially volunteering for the organization when she was free around a full-time criminal law practice, Labchuk was involved in the defence of Krajnc and other activists arrested over the slaughterhouse protest. Over time, she says, the animal portion of her work slowly took over.

“Canadians care very deeply about animals, but we feel our laws and law enforcement have not quite caught up to public opinion,” Labchuk says. “Our job is to make sure they better reflect how we want animals to be treated.”

Lesli Bisgould, a staff lawyer at Legal Aid Ontario who has taught an animal law course at the University of Toronto’s law school, welcomes the recent “explosion” in interest the area has received. While in private practice, she says, it was sometimes overwhelming fielding calls from animal organizations in need of legal help.  

“I’d have nowhere to refer to them,” she says. “Now, there are lots of options.”

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