Animal Welfare Law and Politics in New Zealand

03 November 2011


In March this year Green Party MP, Sue Kedgley, gave a public lecture with Vernon Tava. Sue has campaigned tirelessly for the interests of animals for the past twelve years in Parliament. Vernon is the 2010 winner of the Fowlds Memorial Prize for top Masters student in law and is a Research Fellow at the New Zealand Centre for Environmental Law.

Fresh from the success of the Minister of Agriculture’s decision to ban sow crates earlier in the year, Sue turned her attention this year to banning the use of cages for the intensive farming of layer hens. This was timely as the Layer Hen Code of Welfare was being reviewed at the time and was still open for submissions. The Faculty of Law has in the past had a strong specialization in the area of animal welfare law. This was due to the scholarship and teaching of Peter Sankoff, who taught at Auckland for seven years, leaving earlier this year to take up an associate Professorship at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. For a number of years, Peter taught the only Animal Law course offered by a New Zealand law school at either undergraduate or postgraduate level. In 2009, the Law School hosted the New Zealand launch of the definitive work in the area: Peter Sankoff and Steven White (eds), Animal Law in Australasia: A new dialogue (Federation Press, Sydney, 2009).

Vernon started at the lecture with the history of the law’s treatment of non-human animals as chattel property. The welfare paradigm prevalent in this area of law does not recognise the legal personality of animals as chattel property. The welfare paradigm prevalent in this area of law does not recognise the legal personality of animals, nor does it prohibit the killing of animals. The only prohibition is on cruelty or ‘ill treatment’ as it is defined in the animal Welfare Act 1999 (AWA). The Act codifies in section 4 the ‘five freedoms’ of proper and sufficient food and water; adequate shelter; the opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour; physical handling in a manner which minimizes the likelihood of unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress; and protection from and rapid diagnosis of, any significant injury or disease. However, the conditions in which industrially-farmed animals – compromising the vast majority of animals in New Zealand – are raised demonstrably do not adhere to these standards. This is because treatment of ‘stock’ animals is governed by the Codes of Welfare which are delegated legislation under the AWA. These regulations are set by the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC), a body with a strong bias toward the interests of industrial producers. The codes do not have to comply with five freedoms if, among other things, ‘economic implications’ are considered by NAWAC to outweigh welfare concerns. Section 12 (2) of the AWA allows a complete defence to any charge of ill-treatment if the defendant can show that they have complied with the minimum standards established in a relevant code of welfare, even if those standards would otherwise constitute cruelty.

Sue Kedgley built on Vernon’s introduction to speak to the political realities of achieving legal reform. She described entering Parliament and thinking that within one and a half to two years battery hen cages would be outlawed. Sue elaborated upon the significant vested interest and power of agribusiness lobby groups, noting that she had not realized how significant their influence was before entering Parliament. The public and private arguments around animal welfare standards inevitably come down to economic considerations and a case in point was that the analysis of the proposed layer hen code given by NAWAC was couched almost exclusively in economic terms. However, she said that, whilst progress has been slow, the shift in public perception over time has made the work worthwhile.