Animal law: Past, present, and possible future

Law firms and barristers’ chambers offering specialist animal law services are few and far between.  They exist and are on the rise but are still a rare beast (pardon the pun).  It may be that the paucity of service offerings in this field is due – in part at least – to the nebulous and disparate nature of animal law as a concept.  That may be so, but isn’t the same true of many legal disciplines?  Few would argue that property law encompasses a narrow and neatly confined set of principles, but you don’t have to look far to find lawyers and law firms willing to assist with your property related affairs

 By Paul Fuller, Business and Property barrister at 42 Bedford Row

Assuming the drivers are purely economic, there is a strong incentive for animal law services to be much more widely available.  The Office for National Statistics reports that, in 2022 alone, the value to the UK economy of pets, pet related products, veterinary and other pet services was over £15 billion.1  In 2021 the UK’s total income from livestock output was over £16 billion.2

The drivers are of course not purely economic.  The UK is and has always been an animal loving nation.  The RSPCA, founded in 1824, was the world’s first ever animal charity.3  Today, over 90% of pet owners regard their pets as valued family members.4  English law has long recognised the special nature of human/pet relationships – as for example in Re Dean (1889)5, where the court upheld the validity of a pet trust, notwithstanding the general rule against private purpose trusts.  Try advising a client to reflect on the “commerciality” of pursuing a course of action motivated by the love and affection of a companion animal.

The nation’s affinity with animals is also reflected in the statute books.  The Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822, closely followed by the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835, both date back some 200 years.  In more modern times we have of course seen the Hunting Act 2004 (and the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland Act) Act 2002), outlawing the hunting of wild mammals with dogs.  More recently, in what has been widely heralded as a landmark development, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 recognises, in law – for the first time – the sentience of animals.  Section 2(2) of the 2022 Act establishes a parliamentary “Animal Sentience Committee”, to report on “whether, or to what extent, the government is having, or has had, all due regard to the ways in which… policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings”.

Further reforms too are on the horizon.  Last year the government published draft statutory guidance proposing amendments to Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015, criminalising the abuse or the threat of abuse of pets as a form of controlling and coercive behaviour.6  Also last year, a white paper entitled “A fairer rented sector”, observed that “domestic pets can bring joy, happiness, and comfort to their owners, as well as supporting their mental and physical well-being including through challenging times”.  To that end the paper proposed reforms within the private rented sector, introducing legislation to ensure landlords do not unreasonably withhold consent to their tenants having pets.

A corollary of the lack of specialist UK animal law practices is apparent within the academic sector.  A recent article produced by the UK Centre for Animal Law7 noted that undergraduate animal law courses in the UK have stagnated, compared with a sharp growth in courses elsewhere globally, in the particular the USA.  In 2007/08 some 38% of law faculties in the USA offered animal law modules, compared with just 5% in the UK.8  By 2017 there was little change, with just 5 out of 109 LLB courses offering animal law modules.9  Dunn et al note that there has been some improvement since 2017, now with 10 law schools and 5 non-law schools offering modules, but that development has nonetheless “been slow and there is plenty of scope for further growth”This smacks of missed opportunity, when animal law modules present students with opportunities not just to study legal doctrine and jurisprudence, but also to engage in deeper social, economic, moral and ethical thinking and debate.

Times are changing and the legal sector has been slow to respond.  Where is the impetus to be found?  Animal welfare and environmental protection are issues that captivate the minds of the younger generation.  When surveyed in 2021, 78% of 2,048 children aged 8-15 stated that the environment was important to them, and 81% stated that they wanted to do more to look after the environment.10 A YouGov survey conducted in 2020 found that 17% of adults aged 18-24 followed vegetarian, vegan or pescetarian diets, compared to just 5% of adults aged 65 and over.11

Dunn et al note that we are now beginning to see the embryonic emergence of boutique firms and legal departments offering animal law and animal welfare legal services.  Their hope is that change at the top will filter down to UK universities and other academic institutions, that will then follow suit introducing more animal law modules.  Maybe so.  Perhaps though real change needs to start, not end, with the next generation.  It is the lawyers of the future and the clients they serve that will be best placed to garner change and determine the complexion of the legal services industry in years to come.  The passion to effect that change will be sparked in lecture theatres and classrooms, not in courtrooms and boardrooms.  Perhaps the tail needs to wag the dog.

 Paul Fuller is a Business and Property barrister at 42 Bedford Row and a member of his chambers’ Animal Welfare Group.

  1. ONS Census 2021.

Available at:;

  1. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Total Income from Farming in the UK in 2021.

Available at:,value%20by%20%C2%A338%20million

  1. RSPCA; Our History.

Available at:,the%20charity%20would%20become%20today

  1. McNicholas, J et al; Pet ownership and human health: a brief review of evidence and issues; BMJ 2005 Nov 26; 331(7527): 1252–1254.
  2. Re Dean(1889) 41 Ch D 552.
  3. Home Office; Draft Controlling or Coercive Behaviour Statutory Guidance. Available at
  4. Rachel Dunn, Debbie Rook, Paula Sparks & Tiffany Mitchell(2023) Teaching Animal Law in UK universities: the benefits, challenges and opportunities for growth, The Law Teacher, 57:1, 15-37, 1080/03069400.2022.2129333
  5. Peter Sankoff, “Charting the Growth of Animal Law in Education” (2008) 4 J Animal L 105, 131.
  6. Simon Brooman, “Creatures, the Academic Lawyer and a Socio-Legal Approach: Introducing Animal Law into the Legal Education Curriculum” (2017) 38 Liverpool Law Review 243, 245.
  7. The Children’s People and Nature Survey for England 2021: Summer Holidays 2021 (National Statistics)
  8. YouGov Survey; 1652 GB Adults; 01-01 September 2020. Available at:
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