B.C. moves appeals of animal seizures to farm board

British Columbia’s Farm Industry Review Board (FIRB) has been tapped to take over hearing residents’ appeals of animal welfare allegations and seizures.

The provincial government on Tuesday introduced amendments to its Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, allowing residents to appeal to FIRB instead of taking the matter to court.

"The legislative changes will lead to a quicker and more cost-effective dispute-resolution process for animal owners and the B.C. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)," provincial Agriculture Minister Don McRae said in a release.

Citing "public interest and the province’s desire for increased transparency" as the motivators for these changes, the province said it expects the FIRB will be ready to hear such appeals "later in 2012."

The FIRB is already the appellant tribunal for matters relating to the Natural Products Marketing Act, Administrative Tribunals Act and Farm Practices Protection Act. It would only hear animal welfare appeals in cases where animal owners aren’t able to resolve the matter through the B.C. SPCA’s own 28-day internal review process.

After hearing such an appeal, the FIRB would be able to require that an animal be returned to its owner or allow the SPCA to "determine the disposition of the animal."

The FIRB would also be able to "confirm or vary" how much money a liable owner must pay the SPCA to cover costs incurred while an animal was in the SPCA’s care.

The province said Wednesday both the FIRB and SPCA were "consulted" on the planned changes, but the SPCA said in a separate release Tuesday the changes "have no benefits for animals in B.C."

"We are fully in support of fairness and transparency and oversight through an appeal process," SPCA CEO Craig Daniell said. "However, we believe the current system is expedient and works extremely well. Our fear is that the new system adds layers of bureaucracy which will mean fewer animals may be rescued from suffering and fewer animal abusers brought to justice."

"Not good"

Typically, the society said, in cases where it seizes animals, it issues reasons for its decision not to return those animals within "14 days on average."

Appeals would then have gone to the B.C. Supreme Court, where a ruling is made, "on average, within 75 days," Daniell said.

"Based on the reported history of B.C. FIRB, the shortest period before a case is heard is six months and others take much longer. This means that our shelters will be filled with seized animals awaiting rulings," Daniell said.

"This is extremely costly, it is not good animal welfare and it means we do not have room to bring in other abused and neglected animals who need shelter and care."

Daniell also predicted the changes would require SPCA constables to spend more time at their computers doing paperwork rather than being out in the field responding to calls.

McRae said the province’s top priorities in this instance "are to ensure the welfare of animals, and to provide British Columbians with an appeal process that is transparent and fair."

The province also noted an endorsement from Canadian Veterinary Medical Association president Dr. Christiane Armstrong, who called the amendment a "practical, common-sense approach to ensuring fairness when these situations arise, all the while balancing the public’s and the animals’ interests."

The province said its amendments will also provide "greater insight into the enforcement activities of the B.C. SPCA" by requiring the society to provide the ag ministry with "information, data and statistics" related to its enforcement work.

Another amendment would allow the agriculture minister to draft bylaws outlining enforcement procedures, and to appoint others to enforce animal cruelty laws in cases where an agent of the SPCA is "not present or able to enforce the Act."

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