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New B.C. legislation intended to help when families who can’t come to a private agreement regarding the custody arrangement of their pets came into affect Monday.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

New changes to family law in British Columbia mean judges in divorce cases must consider what’s in the best interest of the family pet before deciding who should get custody of the animal, a first-in-Canada change away from treating pets like property, says a lawyer specializing in animal law.

The goal of the new amendments, which came into effect Monday, is to require courts to take into account the pet’s relationship to the family. Factors such as each party’s willingness and capability to care for the animal, child-pet relationships and any potential risk of family violence or threats of cruelty to the pet will have to be considered.

Victoria Shroff, Canada’s first King’s counsel in animal law and a pioneering expert in this legal area, said the amendments to B.C.’s Family Law Act recognize animals as sentient beings and family members, a “groundbreaking change” from treating pets as property.

“Anytime we see animals as more than property, it’s a win for society,” says Ms. Shroff, who is also an adjunct professor of animal law at the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law.

She added this new legislation is ushering in a “new era” of both family and animal law in B.C. “As of yesterday, the idea was that whoever owned the pet got to keep the pet, regardless of who cared, or who had the willingness to care for a pet, regardless of if they had a child who was bonded to the pet,” said Ms. Shroff.

The B.C. government said that by providing more “appropriate” guidance to separating spouses and the court, this change is meant to make family law work better for families in B.C.

“Going through separation or divorce is already difficult for couples and children – our justice system should be there to help, not make it harder,” Premier David Eby said in a statement.

“The changes also recognize that pets are an important part of the family, and allow a child’s relationship with a pet to be considered and respected. By making these reforms with input from people in B.C., we hope to make an already difficult time a bit less stressful for everyone involved.”

The legislation is meant to help when families who can’t come to a private agreement regarding the custody arrangement of their pets decide to bring their case to court.

However, Ms. Shroff said she hopes the new legislation will help couples come to private agreements on pet custody more readily, as there is now a better understanding of what factors the court will consider.

The legislation is groundbreaking in other ways, according to Ms. Shroff, who has been practising animal law in B.C. for more than 20 years. She said this “trauma-informed” legislation will also help women at risk of domestic violence, because violence on pets and humans in relationships goes hand in hand.

“I think this is going to help a lot of women who wouldn’t have left a toxic, violent relationship for fear that something was going to happen to them and their pet,” she said.

She believes the new legislation will set a precedent for other provinces to follow.

The amendments are the first phase of the provincial government’s effort to update family law to reduce difficulties to families going through a separation or divorce, and was proposed in March, 2023, by B.C. Attorney-General Niki Sharma.

Public engagement began on Monday for the second phase, which will review family violence and protection orders, parenting assessments and views of the child, and time and care of children, the government said in a statement.

“These changes include putting the health, safety and well-being of kids at the centre of every decision and using the actual experiences of families in the system to improve it,” Mr. Eby said in the statement.

Surveys for public engagement will remain open on the provincial government’s website until March 31. After that, survey results will be shared publicly and used to inform proposed amendments to the legislation.

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