B.C. wants pets to be treated more like humans and less like property in divorce proceedings
'It's a grey area,' says animal legal expert, noting custody disputes have grown during the pandemic
Who gets the pet in a divorce?
It can be a contentious discussion in any breakup — but how judges deal with such disputes in British Columbia could soon change.
Attorney General Niki Sharma introduced amendments to the province's Family Law Act on Monday, changing the guidance given to judges on what to consider in determining custody, including each person's ability and willingness to care for a pet, the relationship a child has with the animal and the risk of family violence or threat of cruelty.
"We know pets across the province are really loved members of a family," said Sharma.
"The amendments make it easier for people to come up with their own agreements with how to divide time with the family pet, or if they can't, to get an order from a judge."
It's a change from how animals have traditionally been considered in divorce proceedings across Canada, where they have been explicitly treated as any other type of property.
'Kind of a grey area'
Call it purr-fect legislation or a looming cat-astrophe — but the new legislation is no laughing matter to those who have dealt with the issue for decades.
"It's groundbreaking for addressing the notion that animals are family members and not just a piece of furniture," said Victoria Shroff, a lawyer who has dealt with animal disputes for 23 years.
Shroff says that there has been a spike in battles over animal custody in recent years, and judges have had limited guidance on how to deal with what can be highly emotional debates.
As a result, different judges and tribunals have taken different approaches in a variety of cases that have attracted media attention.
"It's been kind of a grey area," said Shroff.
"There's been a disconnect between how at home animals are family, but in the court they're property ... it's time we addressed the issue as looking at an animal as more than some thing, and instead as some one, as a sentient being, as a part of our family."