Should Animals Have Their Own Lawyers in Court to Protect Their Rights and Dignity?


Animals are treated in an ambivalent way. Unfortunately, there are no international binding laws to safeguard animal welfare. It is difficult to protect animals from abuse and neglect and to prosecute those who commit the crimes. Swiss Attorney Antoine Goetschel suggests that state funded lawyers should be appointed to protect animal rights.

Animals are treated in an ambivalent way. On the one hand we look at them as adorable animals, which we keep as pets, or which we love and admire from a distance, in a wildlife reserve or behind glass in the zoo. Most pets are loved by their owners - they have a good life. And some fortunate pets even get a lavish treatment.On the other hand it is normal in our society to regard animals as comsumption products. They are bred in order to be used for consumption - to be transformed into steaks, burgers, sausages, leather couches, bags, beautiful shoes or coats. Most people regard animal testing as useful and indispensable. It helps us to find cures for various diseases.

Unfortunately, there are no international binding laws to safeguard animal welfare. National animal protection laws can be quite stringent in one country but almost absent in another. Awareness of the need and the acceptance of responsibility to safeguard animal welfare and animal rights is not self-evident in this world. Disturbing news reports for example show us the dire circumstances in certain countries in which animals are bred and the cruel and inhumane way in which they are slaughtered in order to be used for consumption.

Because there is a lack of good animal welfare and protection legislation, it is difficult to protect animals from abuse and neglect and to prosecute those who commit the crimes. Many of the animals which are in the hands of humans are treated badly, without respect for their animal dignity.

There is a growing awareness of the need to develop animal welfare and animal protection laws. Switzerland for example takes animal welfare seriously. The Animal Welfare Protection act of 2005 is one of the strictest animal welfarelaws and regulations in the world.According to Swiss law, it is forbidden to keep lone pets such as pigs, guinea pigs, goldfish and other social animals. New dog owners have to take a mandatory course in order to train their dog and to learn how to take good care of them. [1] Swiss law gives very specific information to secure animal welfare. For example, the law stipulates the required water temperature for pet frogs and how much space a gerbil needs. [2]

In the Netherlands there also is a lot of attention for animal welfare and animal rights. The Netherlands is the only country in the world that has a political party for animal rights which has been elected. The political party is active in the Dutch parliament.

On March 7, 2010, the Swiss held a referendum on the question whether Switzerland should introduce a system of state-funded lawyers to represent animals in court which could serve as deterrent against animal abuse and neglect. Even though Switzerland has good animal welfare protection laws, enforcement of the law could be better. Cases of animal abuse often do not make it to court because they are not taken seriously by local authorities.[3] In Switzerland punishment for the neglect or abuse of pets is light. Perpetrators only have to pay a low fine. [4].

At first a majority of the Swiss people was in favor of the appointment of state-funded lawyers. Eventually, only 29.5 % was in favor and 70.5 % voted against the proposal. The Swiss have decided that animal protection laws are good enough and that Switzerland does not need lawyers to defend animal rights and protection of the welfare of animals. [5]

Antoine Goetschel from Zurich is the only state-funded attorney in Switzerland who defends the rights of animals (mostly dogs, cats, guinea pigs, cows, horses and sheep) in court. As a state-funded public prosecutor he represents an average of 150 to 200 abused, maltreated or malnourished animals a year. [6]

He is of the opinion that it is the essence of justice to appoint lawyers to those beings that cannot speak for themselves nor for their rights. The abusers of animals hire lawyers to defend themselves in court but the abused animals have no means of defending themselves. "Why shouldn't someone speak for the animal as well?" [7]

Goetschel thinks that we must be careful - that we should not discriminate when animal rights are concerned: "There is a danger that we only try to protect the animals we think are cute," he says. "I must strip myself of emotion. How would you choose to prosecute the person who cut the head off a cat with a knife versus the person who didn't give any food and water to their cat for two weeks causing it to die? Which cat suffered more? Suffering and dignity should be what guide you, not emotions." [8]Goetschel says that it is not solely about the individual animal. The fight against the principle of abuse of animals is more important to him: "Snails and fleas are used in lab experiments; they should have some form of representation. It's the principle of their use that is important to me rather than the individual animals themselves. I believe that we increase our own dignity when we increase the dignity of others."[9]

The awareness of the need for better animal welfare and animal protection has grown and since the twentieth century considerable efforts have been made to improve the conditions of animals. But there are no universal standards and in some countries animals are simply much better off than in other countries. There is no binding universal yardstick, no general set of principles or rules and no universally applicable and enforceable international legislation with which national legislations need to comply.

In the seventies of the twentieth century, an effort has been made by the International League of Animal Rights to create a universal declaration of animal rights. The Declaration was proclaimed in Paris on 15 October 1978 at the UNESCO headquarters. The text was revised by the International League of Animal Rights in 1989, submitted to the UNESCO Director General in 1990 and made public that same year. Moreover, this document is not legally binding.

Another initiative is the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare (UDAW). This non-binding agreement consisting of basic principles is meant as an inter-governmental agreement. It has been created in order to recognise that animals are sentient, to respect their welfare needs and bring an end to animal cruelty. [10]

For ages philosophers have questioned the status of animals. Centuries ago influential thinkers already brought up issues such as cruel treatment of animals, animal welfare and the unnecessary suffering of animals kept by men. In the 18th century there was a renewed interest in animal welfare and animal ethics. The philosophers J.J. Rousseau and J. Bentham for example, were champions of the improvement of animal welfare.

Important questions in the field of animal ethics are: do animals have moral status? Do they have intrinsic value? Are animals sentient beings? Can they suffer? Do they have rights? Should they have rights? And if so, what is the legal basis for animal rights? There are many perspectives concerning animal rights, such as the utilitarian vision of Peter Singer and the rights based vision of Tom Regan.

Many philosophers and other intellectuals have given their opinion on animal ethics and animal rights. The animal rights question is not an easy one. There are many aspects which need to be taken into consideration. E.g.: do little animals such as lice and millipedes have the same rights as horses or whales? Should we draw a line? Do our moral obligations begin and end at the boundary of our own species? Should we acknowledge the rights of invertebrates as well as vertebrates or only vertebrates, or just mammals?

The general opinion regarding the question whether animals have rights is that animals do not have moral status. Animals do not have an intrinsic value. According to most people, animals are no bearers of legal rights. In order to have rights, a moral status is needed. Human beings have obligations toward each other - to treat each other with respect and to respect each others rights. Mentally disabled persons and very small children or embryo's also have rights even though they are not moral agents. But there are also persons, such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan and Antoine Goetschel, who believe that animals do have rights and that human beings need to make sure that these are safeguarded.

The fact that animal rights are not generally acknowledged (there are many different points of view regarding the question whether animals have rights) makes it even more difficult to create a good set of basic universal principles for the protection of the welfare of animals. It is even harder for people, the public opinion and the international legal conscience to fully recognise the importance of these principles and the need to accept them and use them as a blueprint for legally binding international and domestic legislations.

It seems really ridiculous to defend the rights of one earthworm or a single beautiful butterfly in court. But it seems completely sensible to accept and to take responsibility for the wellbeing of other living beings. Animals should not be treated disrespectfully, disregarding the fact whether it concerns a small insect or a larger animal such as a hedgehog, a whale or an elephant. We should treat animals and nature - life in general - with dignity and respect.


[1] See Swiss ask whether animals need lawyers. An article from BBC News.
[2] See
Swiss say no to animal lawyers. An article from The Independent.
[3] As quoted from The hoof, the whole hoof...Swiss to vote on legal rights for animals. An article from The Independent.
[4] See Switzerland rejects move to provide lawyers for animals. An article from BBC News.
[5] See
Swiss say no to animal lawyers. An article from The Independent.
[6] As quoted from Switzerland rejects move to provide lawyers for animals. An article from BBC News.
[7] As quoted from
Swiss ask whether animals need lawyers. An article from BBC News.
[8] As quoted from The lawyer who defends animals. An article from The Guardian.
[9] Op.cit.
[10] See
Provisional draft of a universal declaration on animal welfare from the Universal Declaration of Animal Welfare (UDAW) website