Who gets Poochy after a divorce?
Changes in legislation tabled Monday (March 27) promise to give better answers to that question.
Attorney General Niki Sharma said amendments to the Family Law Act would help all parties address questions around ownership and possession of pets. It would consider factors such the respective abilities and willingness of individuals to care for animals, their relationships with children and any risks of animal cruelty among other factors.
Vancouver-based lawyer V. Victoria Shroff, animal law specialist at Shroff and Associates, welcomed the proposed changes.
“These amendments reflect how pets are valued as unique family members by society rather than as inanimate property like furniture,” Shroff said. “Having relevant factors to consider for these difficult decisions will bring more clarity and is a welcome change.”
While it is not clear how many divorces involve pets, Shroff said in a 2021 interview with Companion Animal Psychology that one of the first pet custody battles dates back to 1980 in showing the relationship with animal law and family law.
“There are situations when the family pet is weaponized against often the woman or the children in the family,” Shroff said. “And the family pet is harmed as a gateway to also harming the woman in the household.”
Courts have historically treated pets as personal property.
A 2017 court case (Brown v. Larochelle) found no special laws governing pet ownership comparable to the Custody and Maintenance Act or the Divorce Act.
“Obviously there are laws that prohibit cruelty to animals, but there are no laws that dictate that an animal should be raised by the person who loves it more or would provide a better home environment,” it reads.
By way of illustration, consider a 2020 case (Almaas v. Wheeler) in which a court simply granted a couple with two dogs one each dog each.
But case laws appears to be involving. A 2021 case (Poole v. Ramsey-Wall) took a more nuanced perspective in considering the best interests of the pet.
The legislation tabled Monday also include language designed to make it easier to divide property and pensions.
The changes themselves emerged out of feedback from the first phase of multi-year review of the Family Law Act to address changes in society, as well as developments in case law.
The latest available statistics peg the number of divorces in B.C. at 6,849 in 2020, down 20.3 per cent from 2019.