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Animal Creation. 1875. Currier & Ives. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

Legal Personality for Animals in India and Pakistan

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The following is a guest post by Tariq Ahmad, a foreign law specialist in the Global Legal Research Directorate of the Law Library of Congress. Tariq has previously contributed posts on Islamic Law in Pakistan – Global Legal Collection Highlights, the Law Library’s 2013 Panel Discussion on Islamic LawSedition Law in IndiaNew Report from the Law Library of Congress On The Regulation of Hemp Around the World, and FALQ posts on Proposals to Reform Pakistan’s Blasphemy LawsArticle 370 and the Removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s Special Status, and The Controversy Over Marriage and Anti-Conversion Laws in India.

The debate about whether animals should be treated as legal persons has been a growing controversial issue in many jurisdictions around the world. Rather than treating them simply as legal property, some argue that granting animals legal personality with their own rights, duties, and liabilities, and capacity to sue and be sued in court, could provide them with greater legal protection against cruelty and abuse than typically provided by traditional animal protection laws. Despite the reluctance of most jurisdictions around the world to grant such explicit rights, several landmark court judgments and ongoing cases in India and Pakistan have recognized the rights of animals and some have even granted them legal personality. In this region, animals are widely used for labor, transportation, religious, and entertainment purposes. The focus of these cases has been to prevent animal cruelty in circumstances such as the mistreatment of animals in captivity or zoos, the use of animals in cultural competitions and religious ceremonies, and the overloading and transportation of animals.

In India, the current case law on legal personality for animals relies on a landmark decision issued by the Supreme Court in 2014 in Animal Welfare Board of India v. Nagaraja and Ors. The case involved the Jallikattu bull taming competition in Tamil Nadu, in which a bull is released into a crowd where multiple participants attempt to tame and pacify it. The Court held that the competition violated the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. According to the Court, while Article 21 (the Right of Life) of the Indian Constitution safeguards the rights of humans, it also “protects life and the word “life” has been given an expanded definition and any disturbance from the basic environment which includes all forms of life, including animal life, which are necessary for human life, fall within the meaning of Articles 21 of the Constitution.” (Nagaraja case, para. 62.) The Court recognized that animals have the right to live with “honour and dignity which cannot be arbitrarily deprived of and its rights and privacy have to be respected and protected from unlawful attacks.” (Id. para. 51). However, the Court did not explicitly extend legal personality to animals. However, this landmark decision was overturned very recently on May 18, 2023, by a larger bench of the Court, where it upheld state-level amendments to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Act, 1960, which allowed bull-taming sports like Jalikattu. In regards to the application of article 21 to animals, the Court held that while a “person” has protection under article 21, “we do not think it will be prudent for us to venture into a judicial adventurism to bring bulls within the said protected mechanism.” (The Animal Welfare Board of India vs. Union of India, para. 24.)

In 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court in Narayan Dutt Bhatt v. Union of India, which relates to the interstate transporting of horses between Nepal and India, and the overloading of horses in violation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and subsidiary rules, relied on the 2014 Supreme Court Nagaraja decision. The court held that, just as “[c]orporations, Hindu idols, holy scriptures, rivers,” have been recognized as legal persons by the judiciary, “[t]he entire animal kingdom including avian and aquatic are declared as legal entities having a distinct persona with corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a living person.” (Narayan Dutt Bhat case, paras. 98 & 99.) The court declared all citizens throughout the state of Uttarakhand as persons in loco parentis, akin to a parental relationship, for the welfare and protection of animals. (Id. para. 99). Similarly, in Karnail Singh and others v. State of Haryana,  the court, headed by the same judge as the 2018 Narayan Dutt Bhat case, also declared all animals in the animal kingdom, including avian and aquatic species, as legal entities/persons with “corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities of a living person.” (Karnail Singh Case, para. 29.)

However, in 2020, in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) writ petition before the Supreme Court, the Court pushed back on this reasoning and was reported to have stated that “[a]nimals already have the protection of the law…But making them a legal entity is giving them the capacity to sue and be sued… How is that possible?” It is “very unlikely that we will entertain the prayer for declaring them as legal entity.” Last month, the Court dismissed the petition as the “prayer sought in the writ petition cannot be granted by this Court in its extraordinary jurisdiction under Article 32 of the Constitution of India.”

In the same year, the Islamabad High Court of Pakistan recognized that animals have legal rights under the constitution in a case involving the treatment of a chained elephant in a Zoo. Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court, Justice Athar Minallah, ruled that “like humans, animals also have natural rights which ought to be recognized…” In the judgment, the Justice states:

“Do the animals have legal rights? The answer to this question, without any hesitation, is in the affirmative. The Black’s Law Dictionary (Sixth Edition) has defined ‘Legal Right’ as ‘Natural rights, rights existing as a result of contract and rights created or recognized by law.’ The Eleventh Edition defines the expression “as a right related to or recognized by law.” The human rights are inherent because they stem from the attribute of being ‘alive.’ Life, therefore, is the premise of the existence of a right. Whether human rights or rights guaranteed expressly under the Constitution, they all have a nexus with ‘life.’ An object or thing without ‘life’ has no right. A living being on the other hand has rights because of the gift of ‘life.’ An animal undoubtedly is a sentient being. It has emotions and can feel pain or joy. By nature, each species has its own natural habitat. They require distinct facilities and environments for their behavioral, social, and physiological needs. This is how they have been created. It is unnatural for a lion to be kept in captivity in a restricted area. To separate an elephant from the herd and keep it in isolation is not what has been contemplated by nature. Like humans, animals also have natural rights which ought to be recognized. It is a right of each animal, a living being, to live in an environment that meets the latter’s behavioral, social, and physiological needs.” (Islamabad Wildlife Management Board through its Chairman vs. Metropolitan Corporation Islamabad through its Mayor & 4 others, pp. 59-60.)

Selected Law Library and online resources for further research:

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Comments (2)

  1. “Life, therefore, is the premise of the existence of a right.” It will be interesting to see where this leads and whether other countries adopt a similar position. Will there be a national ban on eating meat?

  2. Contemplating the legal personhood of animals is a profound and evolving discussion. The recent legal developments in India and Pakistan, acknowledging animals’ rights and legal standing, offer hope for a future where cruelty and exploitation are minimized.

    These discussions challenge us to recognize the intrinsic value of all sentient beings and to extend our moral responsibility towards them.

    As we navigate this complex terrain, let’s keep advocating for a world where animals are treated with respect, compassion, and the protections they rightfully deserve.

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