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  • Writer's pictureDevesh Saxena

Plea for granting ‘Legal Entity’ to Animals: What does it really mean?

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

On September 9, 2020, the Apex Court heard a petition[1] which urged inter alia that the “entire animal kingdom including avian and aquatic species as “legal entities” having a distinct persona with corresponding rights of a living person and further declaring all Citizens of India as persons in loco parentis, for the protection of animals from cruelty and abuse and to ensure their welfare.” Ultimately, the Court acknowledged the plea and was pleased to 'issue notice' to the Union through various relevant ministries as well as to all the states and also to the Animal Welfare Board of India.

But there seems to be a delusion and dilemma amongst certain sections of society as to what is need of such a petition and what shall be its actual impact. Thus, it is really necessary to understand the purpose of this petition and the importance of the said order passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

Despite the ground-breaking leaps forward in our understanding of the intelligence and rich emotional and social lives of non-human animals, animals are still considered as property — more akin to inanimate objects than living beings. This status significantly limits their legal protections from cruelty and neglect. This is the very reason why the legal status of animals should be elevated beyond mere property.

The animals including avian and aquatics have a right to life and bodily integrity, honour and dignity and they cannot be treated merely as property. But the question which is apparent here is that if they are given these rights then why are they not allowed to exercise them?

It is a long-held edict enshrined in a plethora of religious texts: that Humans are not unique or special in having the neurological substrates that generate consciousness, but all Animals, are conscious and sentient beings, just like humans, and thus, must be treated as such.

Thus ‘legal entity’ or ‘legal personality’ is an entity or unity created by law to which it ascribes rights and duties. At present, animals are not persons in the eyes of law and therefore, they are not subjects of legal rights and duties, and thus, their interests are not recognised by law. The human acts which are considered by law as wrongs against animals are, really speaking, not wrong against animals, but wrongs either against the person who owns the animal or against the state. Cruelty against animals (as defined under Section 11 of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960) is an offence, but this duty is not a duty towards the animals; it is a duty towards the society or the state. This needs to change!

However, legal history reveals that in ancient Hindu jurisprudence, killing of harmless animals like swans, squirrels, pigeons, cows, bulls, etc. was made punishable with fine. In ancient Greek law, animals and even trees were tried in courts for their wrongful acts. In Roman law also, in some cases, inanimate objects were considered as having rights and subject to duties. Today, however, an animal cannot be punished, but if it is extremely dangerous, then only certain laws allow to punish such an animal. For instance, in India, there is a law made for trespassing cattles, i.e. The Cattle Tresspass Act, 1871.

It is very important to understand that, giving legal entity status to animals must necessarily mean a ‘positive confirmation’ to promote their welfare and protection and to protect them from ‘cruelty’ and should not ideally be construed as a ‘negative confirmation’ and thus, for the purpose of removal of any ambiguity an exception can be created by Hon’ble Supreme Court while granting legal status to animals which may not permit any animal or its owner to be sued.

It is not the first time that someone is advocating for granting a ‘legal entity’ status to non-humans. Earlier also our statues as well as courts have been pleased to grant this status to inanimate beings such as Idols, Temples, Ganges river, and alike. But all of them have been granted a ‘positive confirmation of legal personality’. Even the prayer in the instant petition made before the Apex Court is clear that granting of ‘legal entity’ status shall necessarily mean “the protection of animals from cruelty and abuse and to ensure their welfare.

Legal personhood is not a “one size fits all” designation and does not necessarily convey all the legal rights and duties granted to human persons under the law. Rather, it simply elevates an entity’s status under the law and confers legally recognizable interests, which are specific to the needs and nature of that entity. So, for example, recognizing a dog as a legal person would not give her the right to vote. However, it might give her the right to not be used in a painful experiment or the right to have a court appoint a guardian to protect her legal rights.

Moreover, the core purpose of our system of laws is to protect the vulnerable from exploitation and to ensure fairness. Animals deserve a legal status that reflects the kinds of beings they are — individuals with their own desires and lives, who have the capacity for pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, fear and contentment.

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has wider aura and the menace of animal cruelty and other forms of torture on them totally negates the essence of the same. Animal cruelty in any form persisting in our country casts a serious doubt on our moral duty and legal obligation under the doctrine of parens patriae (the power of the state to act as a guardian to those who are unable to take care of themselves). Therefore, it is important to note here that while the plea seeks ‘legal entity’ status for animals, it also seeks that all the citizen must be declared as ‘loco parentis’ in order to ensure welfare of animals as their parents or guardians.

Legal personality plays an important part in making a particular thing count in the eyes of the law. The conferral of legal personality upon rightless objects or beings carries with it legal recognition that those objects or beings have “worth and dignity” in their own right. Until we attribute personality to a rightless entity, we are likely to be unable to conceive of it as “anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ – those who are holding rights at the time.

That Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of SHIROMANI GURUDWARA PRABANDHAK COMMITTEE V. SOM NATH DASS, (2000) 4 SCC 146 held that the concept ‘juristic person’ arose out of necessities in the human development, for subverting the needs of faith and society.

That the aforesaid doctrine was duly considered, in the case of KARNAIL SINGH AND OTHERS V. STATE OF HARYANA (2019 SCCONLINE P&H 704) by Hon’ble Punjab and Haryana High Court and NARAYAN DUTT BHATT V. UNION OF INDIA AND OTHERS (2018 SCCONLINE UTT 645), by Hon’ble Uttarakhand High Court, wherein all animals in the animal kingdom were recognized as legal entities, including avian and aquatic species and all citizens of the state of Haryana were declared persons in loco parentis (in place of a parent), which will enable them to act as guardians for all non-human animals within the state of Haryana.

It was further observed in the aforesaid judgments that, “All the animals have honour and dignity. Every specie[s] has an inherent right to live and is required to be protected by law. The rights and privacy of animals are to be respected and protected from unlawful attacks. The Corporations, Hindu idols, holy scriptures, rivers have been declared legal entities, and thus, in order to protect and promote greater welfare of animals including avian and aquatic, animals are required to be conferred with the status of legal entity/legal person. The animals should be healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe, able to express innate behaviour without pain, fear and distress. They are entitled to justice. The animals cannot be treated as objects or property.

Now, one may have a hundred questions popping up in his/her mind such as does this mean that one cannot eat non-vegetarian food? Will it affect the secular laws which allow sacrifice of Goats on Eid? What about the animals being used in scientific labs for experiments? Valid questions! but worries unfounded in law. The above plea in SC only means that yes, animals should now be legal persons (as idols, temples, ganges) and can very well prosecute their rights in the court through their representative. But the rights they can prosecute for are those that are specifically given to only animals under various statutes and not the rights given to humans. So, for example in the case of an animal being cruelly beaten, the relevant law would be Section 11 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and not Grievous hurt as defined in section 320 in the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Furthermore, to clear any other apprehensions about "personhood", one must know that the very same PCA Act 1960 specifically allows the killing of animals for the purposes of human consumption and laboratory experiments.

It is to be borne in mind that as long as animals are still classified as “property” they will not be “full persons”. Because “animals” are a diverse group, with varied capacities, and different societal uses, legal personhood would look different for different species of animals, based on what they need to thrive.

[1] This PIL was filed by Mr. Devesh Saxena, Managing Partner, S&D Legal Associates alongwith Mr. Shashwat Anand, Senior Partner, S&D Legal Associates

(Image Source: The Statesman)



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