About a week or so ago an old friend of mine called my out of the blue in a flood of tears. She was panic stricken at the break up of her relationship. He had after all been the ‘one’, but during the course of our conversation it transpired that alas she was simply one of many. But her angst was not directed at her wayward boyfriend, but at the potential loss of her true love, a pedigree West Highland Terrier called Lollo. The dog had been bought to cement their relationship but that was over two years ago and now with the break up, the ownership of the dog was proving amongst others a bone of contention. And hence the call to her favourite lawyer.
But my friend has not been alone in her trauma. It has been rumoured that Les Dennis and his ex wife Amanda Holden split their Westies so that they could have one each when they relationship ended. With one in three marriages ending in divorce, not to mention the number of couples who buy pets without walking up the aisle the question of pet litigation is becoming more and more pertinent.
So what does happen to the pet when couples split up? In the eyes of the law pets are simply referred to as chattels. A chattel is an old legal word which basically refers to an item of personal property. As such in a legal context a pet is to be compared with nothing more than a lamp, a couch or even an old chair. And to think some say the law is an ass. Gosh now why would they say that?
So the relationship goes horribly wrong (with your partner not your pet) and after the DVDs have been divided into two piles the only thing remaining is the dog or cat (or snake for that matter) soulfully staring at the two of you. So how do you cut the pet in half?
Well if agreement can not be reached as to the question of ownership of the pet or even visitation rights then recourse would need to be made to the courts to determine the question of residence. Not an ideal situation by any extent of the imagination.
On the other side of the Atlantic pet litigation is becoming big business. In August last year a Canadian court ordered that Keith Duncan, a truck driver in Edmonton pay maintenance to his ex wife in the sum of $200 per month to look after not the children, but the pet St. Bernard. As you can perhaps guess in America pet litigation is big business. Courts have been ruling on custody, maintenance and access with ex partners spending thousands of dollars on ownership of their favourite pet. We have had ambulance chasers so perhaps the next natural progression is kennel chasers.
But in Britain things do not work quite like this. Well not yet any way.
An action would in all likelihood need to be brought in the small claims division of your local county court for a declaration seeking ownership of the pet. This basically means that the value of the pet is less than £5,000 and the issue is one which can hopefully be decided without the need for either party to be represented by lawyers. The purpose of the small claims court is basically to avoid expensive and often unnecessary costs in the pursuit of justice.
A claim form would be issued against your former partner (and a fee paid) and after they have filed a defence the case would come before a District Judge who would hear the evidence and make a decision as to who gets the pet.
It would be necessary to ask the Judge to determine the question of ownership of the pet and perhaps also the return of the pet from your ex-partner. In making their decision the Judge will be interested in who originally purchased the pet; was the pet a gift; who undertook the main responsibility for the pet and any documents in existence about the pet such as in whose name any insurance policy is in or any Kennel Club registration. The simple reality is that the Judge would determine each case on its individual facts and merits.
The Judge unlike in cases regarding children does not have the authority without the consent of the parties to agree to access or visitation rights. There is a substantial risk however that the Judge could potentially order that the pet be sold and the proceeds of sale be split between the parties. That however is clearly not what either party would be looking for.
As difficult as it might seem there may be merit in a meeting with your ex-partner under the auspice of something lawyers call mediation, where you could both sit around a table and try and find a solution. If that is too difficult a trained mediator could try and work with both of you to sort out the question of ownership or some form of shared access.
So what is the answer? As unsavoury as it may sound the real answer may well be to enter into a form of pre-nuptial agreement with your partner when you invest in a pet. A formal document setting out perhaps who paid for the pet and who actually owns it. The alternative could be you stay together for the sake of the pet, well after all many people would do the same for a child. To paraphrase another slogan ‘a pet is not just for the relationship, it is for life.’