Lawyer argues activists should speak on behalf of animals in court

A Toronto lawyer is arguing animal rights advocates should be able to speak for animals in court. North Bay and District Humane Society / Facebook

A retired Toronto lawyer has gone to court in a bid to secure the right for advocates to speak up on behalf of animals in legal settings.

The case began earlier this year when Sandra Schnurr filed a notice of application against five retail giants selling glue traps, or devices commonly used to catch rodents.

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Schnurr argued that the traps subject mice and rats to agonizing, prolonged deaths and filed an application seeking to ban Canadian Tire, Walmart, Home Depot, Home Hardware and Lowe’s from selling them.

The retailers, in turn, filed a motion to dismiss Schnurr’s complaint on the grounds that she did not have standing to bring such a matter before the courts.

But Schnurr argued that the rules surrounding who has the right to speak on various legal issues have been relaxing and animal rights advocates should be permitted a voice in Canada’s courtrooms.

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The issue of standing was argued before Ontario Superior Court Justice Lorne Sossin last week and should be decided in the coming months.

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Schnurr said questions around standing need to be resolved before her original notice about glue traps can proceed. If standing is granted, she said the case will have struck a blow for animal rights regardless of the outcome of the original complaint.

“If we succeed at this stage, even if we ultimately lose on the glue trap issue, the fact that we will have succeeded in getting public interest standing to speak for animals would be huge,” Schnurr said in a telephone interview.

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Lawyers representing the retailers did not respond to a request for comment, though their objections to Schnurr’s case are outlined in a factum brought before the court.

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In addition to arguing Schnurr’s motion represents an “abuse of process” that should be dismissed out of hand, the retailers’ factum suggests Schnurr and the advocacy group she founded do not have enough at stake to merit a say on the issue.

The factum said Schnurr, founder of a group known as Canadians for Animal Protection, has not suffered any direct wrong from the sale of glue traps and should therefore not be granted standing.

The retailers also state that members of the public did not have the right to try to enforce criminal law, arguing such matters are the exclusive purview of an attorney general and citing past case law to support their position.

But Schnurr argued more recent cases suggest that position may be relaxing and courts are willing to take a broader view of public interest standing.

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Schnurr particularly referenced a September 2012 Supreme Court of Canada decision that granted standing to a group of advocates representing sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.

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The federal government had argued the group and a previous sex worker named in the case had no standing to challenge the country’s prostitution laws, since they were not facing charges under those laws themselves. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected that argument and granted them legal standing.

Schnurr said the court should take a similar approach in Ontario by granting standing to those wishing to speak up on behalf of those who cannot represent themselves.

“Obviously the court is unable to obtain the point of view of those most directly affected in the instant case, for the self-evident reason that rats and mice…cannot come to court and speak for themselves,” she said.

“The applicants, who are dedicated to advocating for these voiceless creatures, are the next best choice.”

Schnurr said those seeking public interest standing must meet three criteria by demonstrating they’re raising a genuine issue of justice, have a real stake or interest in the subject, and using court resources properly by raising an issue that can be reasonably and effectively addressed in that setting.

Schnurr’s factum said animal rights advocates meet all three criteria.

Sossin has reserved his decision in the case, though no date has yet been set.

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