Surprising though it may be to many pet lovers, there is no specific law in England to assist with what happens to pets in a matrimonial break up and disputes are more common than you may think. Many people treat their pets as family members and disputes over pet ownership can be every bit as heated and acrimonious as disputes over children. There are frequent arguments and threats to apply to court to get ‘access’ to Tibbles or Bonzo.
The reality is that there is no possible way to achieve this. In English law pets are treated as property, not people and although the court can decide ownership of a pet using available information about a purchase or gift, the court cannot change ownership to reflect the main carer for the animal, the carer that the animal would prefer or arrange for visits to take place.
However, there is a suggestion that this should change. An article by Deborah Rook of Northumbria Law School – published in The International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family (Oxford Journals) – recommends that disputes concerning animals should be resolved in line with disputes regarding children, using the ‘best interest of the child’ test from the Children Act. Ms Rook recommends that the courts should adopt the approach taken in some American courts which look at the animals welfare – there have even been examples of pets ‘choosing’ their carer in the courtroom by seeing who they go to first. Thankfully that test is unlikely to ever happen here, but as there is a pet in 45% of English households, maybe there should be some provision for the courts to take into account the emotional bonds that exist between the pet and carers and the interest the pet has in avoiding physical harm.
For further information on disputes over pet ownership or any other family matters, please contact a member of our Family team on 01625 442100.