Divorce is rarely an entirely stress-free affair and whilst couples are grappling with their raw emotions decisions often have to be made with regards to how the matrimonial property is to be divided.
For example, who keeps the house? How should the contents of the house be divided? Who gets the dog?
If one of those items does not sit comfortably with you, that’s probably because you, like many pet owners, consider pets to be more like family members than furniture. But, unfortunately, the Courts in England and Wales do not agree.
Under English Law, animals are property. So although pet custody battles are often passionate, Courts lack the same compassion we have for our animals. As a result, the Court treats your dog as mere property to be distributed along with the washing machine and the family car. This is regardless of the fact that science has proven that the same part of a dogs brain lights up as yours, when you see the person you love walk through the door. However, there is no room for representations about the bond between dog and owner in Court proceedings, it is more often a simple paperwork exercise where property (including your dog) is attributed a monetary value.
However, it would appear that the tide is turning as Alaska an amendment has now been made to their divorce statute which has made significant waves in the world of Animal Law. Alaska was the first state in America to require courts to “take into consideration, the well-being of the animal” and to explicitly empower Judges to assign Joint Custody of pets.
David Favre, a Mighigan State University Law Professor who specialises in Animal Law said “It is significant. For the first time, a state has specifically said that a companion animal has visibility in divorce proceedings beyond that of property — that the court may award custody on the basis of what is best for the dog, not the human owners.”
The Alaska Bill also allows Courts to include pets in Domestic Violence protective orders and requires the owners of pets seized in cruelty or neglect cases to cover the cost of their shelter.
This is, clearly, progress and will, hopefully, catch on in other jurisdictions. The fact that in England and Wales the much loved family dog is treated in the same way as the matrimonial dustbin does not really back up our often said mantra of being a “nation of animal lovers”: neither do the ridiculously lenient sentences given to those who have been found guilty of harming animals in breach of the Animal Welfare Acts. However, both are, indeed, clear examples of how this country is actually failing animals and progress in this respect continues to be painfully slow. Surely now that one state in America has taken a progressive stance, others will follow?