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Family Law Blog

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Pets, divorce and fostering

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RSPCA launched a campaign last week called PetRetreat. It’s a fostering service for pets effectively. A network of fosterers can look after a person’s cats, dogs or whatever, so that they can escape domestic violence. Once they are settled in a new life, they can claim back their pet.

The move came because some victims of domestic violence feel trapped in their situation because they don’t want to leave – leaving the animals behind. Because they have nowhere to take them and no one else to look after them, they go on living a wretched life as a victim of domestic violence.

A nationwide appeal for pet fosterers has gone out. If you are interested in helping, you can find out more here.

It’s not something I had thought about before. Are there lots of people who can’t leave because they are worried about what will happen to the dog? Highly likely bearing in mind we are a nation of animal lovers. I guess it is not just the wrench of leaving them behind but also the fear that, in extreme circumstances, an abusive partner might harm the pet. It is difficult enough for someone in a violent relationship to leave in many cases so anything to help them should be welcomed.

Pets do play a prominent role in any home and, therefore, in any split. They can be involved in “tugs of love” just as children can. Or they can be used as pawns in bitter disputes over settlements – just as children can. Courts may even be asked to rule on who “gets custody” of Tiddles or Monty.

We have a long way to go before our system evolves to that in force in the USA where some of the federal courts are starting to apply the concept of the best interest of the animal, a standard usually reserved for questions involving children. For example, a Virginian court has applied the rationale that a cat’s happiness took priority over the property rights between the parties.

It is a sore point for many UK pet owners to learn that our own system takes a somewhat more literal approach. Applying the rule at its most basic level, an animal is considered an asset the same as any matrimonial possessions. However, unlike the family car or computer, things often become much more complicated because with animals it can get more emotional.

Whilst there are many cases involving animals that end up in the court arena, thankfully most cases settle long before it reaches a stage where the court has to make an ultimate decision.

The best approach remains to try and negotiate an agreement as, unless the law changes, the best interest of the pet will not be considered and the pet will continue to be treated as the parties’ personal property. Read more on the topic in this article on the Woolley & Co website.

Andrew Woolley
Family solicitor

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