Status of Animals as Legal Persons In a unique ruling, Uttarakhand High Court has given legal status to animals in the state to prevent cruelty towards them, saying “they have a distinct persona with corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person”. It includes all the aquatic and avian animals and the citizens of Uttarakhand have been… Read More »

Status of Animals as Legal Persons

In a unique ruling, Uttarakhand High Court has given legal status to animals in the state to prevent cruelty towards them, saying “they have a distinct persona with corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person”. It includes all the aquatic and avian animals and the citizens of Uttarakhand have been declared as persons in loco parentis as the human face for the welfare and protection of the animals. It implies that all animals have an equivalent right to moral consideration and legal protection by the State.


In Jurisprudence, there are two types of persons – natural person and artificial person (also known as a juristic or legal person). A legal person is created by law and is a person capable of having rights and liabilities. Generally, a living person is considered to have legal status, but companies, rivers, idols, and even animals have been declared as legal persons by the Courts from time to time as they have been found capable of having their rights and liabilities similar as that of a natural person.

There are two types of rights that can be provided – Negative rights and Positive rights. Negative rights are those that entitle the right holders not to be negatively affected in certain ways (for example, not to be killed by another) and positive rights are those that entitle right holders to be positively affected in certain ways (for example, to gain access to health care services or to be assisted if they suffer).

Granting someone a negative right such as the right not to be used as a resource means that their interests should be taken into account. Usually, when we take someone’s interests into account, it means we care about their well-being, and we care not only about not being the cause of their harm but also about helping them if they are suffering.

The rationale behind the decision

The underlying principle behind this order is found in the Isha Upanishads that talk about the equality of all species found, as the basis of our culture and tradition. ‘Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the utilitarian school of Jurisprudence, stated that when deciding on a being’s rights, “The question is not ‘Can they reason?’ nor ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?’” He points to the capacity for suffering as the vital characteristic that gives a living being the right to equal consideration.’[2]

All animals suffer in the same way and to the same degree that humans do. Therefore, they should have similar rights as that of human beings.

In extending legal personality to animals, the Court relied on the decision in Animal Welfare Board of India v. A. Nagaraja & Ors.[3] in which the Supreme Court had recognized the freedoms of animals included the freedom from hunger, fear and distress, physical and thermal discomfort, freedom from pain and injury and freedom to express normal behavioural patterns, all of which must be read into the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

Indian Judiciary while deciding environment-related cases has always considered the doctrine of ‘public trust’, which states that the state is merely a trustee and not the owner of natural resources within its territory, which it holds in trust for its citizens.

Wildlife is also a resource held in trust by the state. Animal rights are not just a philosophy but a social movement to change the view of society that animals are just for the benefit of humans. Animals have their own independent existence and humans should value their lives.

Prevention of Exploitation

Animals have been used as a mode of transportation and also to carry loads since ancient times. They are a cheap mode of transportation and are more suitable for rural or hilly areas. But they are often exploited and are neglected by their owners. To address this issue a petition was filed by Mr. Narayan Dutt Bhatt [5], seeking restriction on the movement of horse carts/tongas between Nepal and India through the Champawat district of Uttarakhand.

The Division Bench gave instructions regarding the amount of load allowed to be pulled by various animals in accordance with the kind of carriage being pulled to the number of riders per carriage. The use of a spike or other sharp equipment to tackle animals is also prohibited. The court also directed to ensure that if the temperature at any time exceeds 37°C or drops below 5°C, no person shall be permitted to keep in harness any animal used for the purpose of drawing vehicles and animals will not be transported on foot.

The order also talks about proper vaccination to be administered to animals and highlighted the need for fluorescent reflectors in carriages and on animals to ensure safety during darkness, certificates of the unloaded weight of vehicles, a compulsory shelter of suitable size for horses, bullocks and stray cattle and a direction to the veterinary doctors of Uttarakhand to treat any stray animals brought to them and due care to be exercised.[6]

Provisions of the order passed stress on prioritizing the health of animals, thereby protecting their existence. Earlier, there was no restriction on the use of animals as a means to carry load leading to their exploitation. Injured or infected animals are left in fields or open spaces which increases the risk to the life of other animals and humans as well. There need to be strict policies to regulate the use of animals. The protection of animals will help in the protection of the environment. If strict laws are not made, more and more animals will become extinct.

Status around the World

Several countries are putting their best foot forward and have made it clear that animals are important. They are legally categorized as property in Australia, a legacy of the common law system that Australia inherited from Britain. Since then, however, scientific, philosophical and cultural views about animals have changed. The need to reconsider the appropriateness of the property status of animals is evident in Australia.

Over the last three decades, many countries like Germany, Switzerland, and Austria have amended their respective Civil Codes for changing the legal status of the animals, these countries have declared that the animals are not objects and are not to be the subjects of the laws relating to the objects. Other countries around the globe are channelizing their efforts to change the legal status of some specific animals. E.g. in the US, there are lawsuits seeking to have the chimpanzees declared as legal person so the writ of habeas corpus (literal meaning ‘that you have the body’) can be issued for their liberty.[7]


An important criticism of the project to grant legal personhood to animals is that by forcing animals to be governed as persons under man-made legal systems, we continue to assert human supremacy over other species.[8] Humans being superior have always dominated and tried to use other living beings for their benefit. The judgment, even though a great step by the judiciary, only establishes that humans will control animals and they themselves will decide how to control them.

In a previous judgment, Uttarakhand High Court gave legal status to the Ganga and Yamuna, appointing government officials as their representative, but, the officials had said the task was beyond them, and at what point would the responsibility stop? For example, if the river is a legal person, does bathing in it violate the river, and if so, how could everybody be ordered to stop bathing in it? The legal status to a non-living thing which itself cannot decide its rights is not simple. In the case of animals as well, there is no clarity in the sharing of responsibility among the citizens as guardians. Can one person sue another for improper treatment of animals?

There is no clarity when it comes to owned livestock and wild animals, no precision in how responsibility is to be shared, or who would decide in case there is a clash of rights. If a leopard killed a goat, would the goatherd sue herself, all the citizens of the state, or the state administration? The very unworkability of the rights leads to their meaninglessness when applied to the animal kingdom.[9]

The orders can be passed easily, but most of the times their implementation is not practically possible. The granting of legal status to non-living being is simply an outcome of social advancement. The ancient practices need to change with time as every individual in the environment has an equal right to exist. But in a country like India where a person can kill and eat a chicken in whichever way he wants but similar cannot be done with a cow, how can all animals be given equal rights.


The step taken by the Uttarakhand High Court is a positive step towards the protection of wildlife as such a judgment to will secure environmental interests, but, the question of expanding the definition of legal persons to include animals, involves a deeply contentious issue in law and philosophy. Legal status to any being means that it can sue and be sued, it means that animals have a right to sue and be sued as well which will be executed by their guardian i.e. the citizens of Uttarakhand.

The implementation of the legal status of animals is not simple. If the rights of animals are truly recognized, the Indian legal system will have to be completely changed to cater to the rights of animals. The use of animals as labour will have to be completely eliminated, to actually recognize their rights.


[2] accessed on 11 January 2019

[3] Animal Welfare Board of India vs A. Nagaraja & Ors on 7 May 2014 taken from

[4] Robert Adrian Hillman/ taken from

[5] Narayan Dutt Bhatt vs Union of India and Others on 4 July 2018, Writ Petition (PIL) No. 43 of 2014

[6] accessed on 11 January 2019

[7] Legal personality of animals by Akkiakhand, accessed on 11 January 2019

[8] accessed on 11 January, 2019

[9] accessed on 11 January 2019

  1. Law Library: Notes and Study Material for LLB, LLM, Judiciary and Entrance Exams
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Updated On 29 Nov 2021 12:34 PM GMT
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