By Meghan Scolyer, law student
In a landmark ruling last month, the High Court of the Indian state of Uttarakhand granted all animals within the state the status of legal personhood. This development follows in the footsteps of other jurisdictions such as New Zealand, France and Quebec in Canada, which are also pushing the boundaries on legal personhood.
The case was initially brought to address cruelty inflicted on cart horses who carried trade between Nepal and India. However, the parties agreed to widen the scope of the case, ultimately requiring the Court to make a decision on the legal status of all animals within the state. The Court found in favour of the claimants, conferring the status of legal personhood to the entire animal kingdom and declaring the citizens of Uttarakhand to be legal guardians of animals, responsible for their welfare and protection.
In delivering its judgment, the Court reasoned that the life of an animal must go beyond mere survival, existence or instrumental value for human beings, and that animals must be empowered to lead a life that reflects their intrinsic worth, honour and dignity. The Court was also persuaded by teachings of the Hindu tradition, which subscribes to the belief that all life is sacred. The Court went on to say that humans must show compassion towards all living creatures, and that animals cannot be treated merely as property. They emphasised that all species have a right to life and deserve the full protection of the law.
This case is not the first time the Uttarakhand High Court has recognised legal personhood for non-human entities. In 2017, the Court held that the Ganga and Yamuna rivers are legal persons, reasoning that a river is a living symbol of all the life it sustains and nourishes, and is therefore deserving of protection. Although the Court’s rulings only apply to the State of Uttarakhand, they set an enlightened precedent that may be persuasive to other courts, including India’s highest court (the Supreme Court). Whilst India’s Supreme Court declined to accept the ruling that rivers were legal persons, it has previously made a ruling recognising animal sentience and promoting the right of animals to live a life free from human induced suffering.
The status of personhood does not bestow upon animals the same democratic rights, duties and freedoms as humans. It doesn’t give animals the right to vote, run for a seat in Parliament, or render them legally equal to human citizens. It does however provide a greater level of protection by conferring certain legal rights, and allowing human representatives to commence legal action on their behalf.
Research produced by scholars from multiple disciplines supports the personhood classification both on philosophical grounds, and as a means of improving protection from abuse and inhumane captivity. Though the movement does have critics, the conferral of rights has historically advanced the interests of marginalised groups. This is because rights symbolise that the life of the rights-holder is valuable.
Despite this, Australia, like most other countries, is yet to recognise animals as legal persons. Instead, animals are classified as ‘property’ in Australia and many other jurisdictions around the world. But many remain hopeful that the vision of global recognition of personhood for non-human animals will eventually be realised. Organisations such as the renowned Nonhuman Rights Project campaign tirelessly to secure personhood through litigation, advocacy and education.
The ruling of the Uttarakhand Supreme Court represents another exciting step forward in the movement to recognise the rights of non-human animals.
Meghan Scolyer is a law student at the University of Tasmania, currently writing an honours thesis on the concept of legal personhood for nonhuman animals. In 2018, Meghan successfully lobbied the UTAS Student Environmental Law Society to expand its ambit to include animal law – it is soon to be renamed ‘SEALS’ (Student Environmental and Animal Law Society) as a result.