Tess Vickery is a former commercial litigation and class action lawyer from Sydney. In 2018, she moved to the United States to complete a Masters of Animal Law at Lewis & Clark Law School, and is now working as Policy Advisor to the Hon. Emma Hurst MLC, Member of NSW Parliament for the Animal Justice Party. Our Animal Law & Education Manager Dr Meg Good had a chat to Tess about why she decided to become an animal lawyer, and her experiences helping to represent the interests of animals in state parliament.
Impressively, you created the Animal Law Program at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in Sydney – what prompted you to do this?
Tess Vickery: I discovered Animal Law in the final year of my law degree at Macquarie University. The course was taught by Dr Jed Goodfellow, Senior Policy Officer at RSPCA Australia, and it really changed the course of my life. The unit made me realise how much institutionalised cruelty is inflicted on non-human animals, how marginalised and ignored their interests are, and how they are in desperate need of legal advocates to speak up for their interests.
After graduating, my experience with the course led to me pitching the idea of an ‘animal law program’ to Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, so we could provide pro-bono assistance on strategic litigation promoting the interests of animals, as well as taking on paying animal-related cases that overlapped with our existing areas of practice.
Was there a key case you worked on during your time with the program?
Tess: Our first case was a successful consumer action run in conjunction with the Animal Law Institute (ALI), involving a beautiful dog called Nala. Nala’s human owners had purchased what they believed to be a pure-bred, healthy beagle from a registered breeder they found on Gumtree.
However, shortly after they took her home, Nala became extremely unwell. Her vet found she was suffering a worm infestation that was so severe, it was likely contracted from her mother in-utero. Nala’s owners successfully brought a claim against the breeder arguing that she had breached the consumer guarantees in the Australian Consumer Law by supplying a ‘good’ (Nala) that was not of ‘acceptable quality’.
The case sends a wider message to unscrupulous backyard breeders and puppy farms – if they sell sick and mistreated animals to the public, there are legal avenues to hold them to account.
Are there many programs like this in law firms across Australia?
Tess: At the moment, the Animal Law Program at Maurice Blackburn is quite unique. While almost every law firm has a pro-bono program, very few dedicate their pro-bono resources to non-human animals – but I hope that will change in the near future, particularly as the public interest in animal protection continues to grow.
You then went over to the US to study a Masters of Animal Law at Lewis and Clark Law School. What did you learn from the experience?
Tess: The Animal Law LLM at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, has a reputation for being the leading program for animal law in the world.
The nine-month program was an amazing and transformative experience for me - I got to fully immerse myself in the study of animal law, and the subjects were taught by pioneers in the animal law field, including the founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and often described ‘Mother of Animal Law’, Joyce Tischler.
Did you get the opportunity to work on any cases during your time in the US?
Tess: One of the most rewarding parts of the LLM program was the Animal Law Clinic, where we were able to act for real-world clients on important animal law issues. For example, I was able to help write a brief for the appeal of a ground-breaking legal personhood case, Justice v. Vercher.
Justice, a horse, is seeking to sue his former owner in civil court for his extensive ongoing medical costs. His owner had already been criminally convicted for severe maltreatment of Justice, including starvation, frostbite and other horrific injuries. The case was dismissed at first instance because the judge found that Justice, as a horse, lacked ‘standing’ (that is, an ability to bring a lawsuit before a court) because he is an animal.
However, the Animal Legal Defense Fund – who filed the case on Justice’s behalf – argue that Justice has the same right as any human victim of crime to sue his abuser for monetary damages (which would be put into a trust for his ongoing care), and have lodged an appeal.
The case is still ongoing, and I will be eagerly awaiting the outcome!
You’re now a Policy Advisor to the Hon. Emma Hurst MLC in the NSW Parliament. Can you tell us a bit about your work with Emma?
Tess: It is incredibly exciting that we now have two members of the Animal Justice Party elected to the Upper House in the NSW Parliament, and another in Victoria. It shows that animal protection is not just a marginal issue, but something that people from across the community care about.
We regularly meet with Government Ministers and their representatives to ensure the interests of non-human animals are being considered in legislative and policy decisions, where they may otherwise be overlooked.
For example, in a recent omnibus bill amending a range of criminal laws, the Government sought an amendment which would have allowed bestiality to be treated as a summary offence punishable by a maximum of only two years imprisonment, rather than the current maximum of 14 years.
This was very concerning, particularly given recorded incidents of bestiality in NSW are actually quite high. After raising our concerns with the Government, we managed to have this provision removed from the bill by amendment, which required all major parties to have a serious discussion in Parliament about the sexual abuse of animals – something that likely would not have happened without the Animal Justice Party being there.
What is one of your team’s most significant achievements since Emma joined the parliament?
Tess: One of our most exciting achievements happened shortly after Emma was elected, when she was able to get the majority of the Upper House to vote for an inquiry to take place into the use of battery cages in NSW. The inquiry had a huge response with over 14,000 public submissions received, and the evidence overwhelmingly showed that cages are bad for hen welfare, and are not supported by the community.
At the conclusion of the inquiry, a report was prepared setting out recommendations, including a recommendation that battery cages be phased out, which the Government will be required to respond to next year. So watch this space!