How to save & take care of a kitten and feral cats - an advocacy tool kit

Cats and the Law: A Guide to Getting Legal Help

Guide/How-to| Cats and the Law

Alley Cat Allies is an advocacy organization. We do not give legal advice and we do not represent individuals in legal proceedings. The following information is provided solely for educational purposes and is not legal advice.

There are several scenarios where you might find yourself in need of a lawyer to assist with an animal law matter. These situations could involve receiving a citation or being charged with a crime, civil matters such as eviction related to custody/possession of an animal or disputed ownership and/or rights to an animal, or even animal cruelty matters.

If you are involved in a situation that may require hiring a lawyer to protect yourself and the cats for whom you care, the following information will help streamline the process. Note, the sooner you seek help and legal assistance, the better no matter what the situation is.

A note for cat caregivers:

Cat caregivers should take time to learn their local government structure and any ordinances related to animals. We’ll help you find that information at alleycat.org/CatsAndTheLaw. An attorney can might also help you understand local laws and how they apply to your situation.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

If you find yourself involved in a legal dispute (whether receiving a citation or a civil dispute), your first question may be, “Do I need a lawyer?” Hiring a lawyer to get advice on a situation doesn’t necessarily mean you will hire that person to represent you in court. You may merely want an initial consultation to discuss the matter, the law, or any potential consequences, and then decide whether you want further representation. You will almost certainly benefit from consulting a lawyer to get an opinion on the legal merits of your situation. A lawyer can give you peace of mind and bring an objective perspective to the matter.

Keep in mind that you can limit the time, and therefore the legal fees, that the lawyer spends developing his or her opinion on your case with preparation before the meeting and clear communication of what representation you desire. Some lawyers offer discounted, flat fees, or sometimes even a free initial consultation, so be sure to ask about billing options. If not, paying a lawyer for a few hours of his or her time can be a worthwhile investment.

To Self-represent or Not

Your next decision is whether to represent yourself in court or hire a lawyer. Each situation is unique and only you can decide. However, there are significant benefits to having legal counsel, including familiarity with the process, the court, and the required skills to present the necessary evidence to support your case.

How to Find the Right Kind of Lawyer – Animal Law Attorney or Not

If you have decided to hire a lawyer, it is time to find the right one for your circumstances. No matter how unique your situation may seem, there is always legal help available. One of the most important things is to act as soon as possible to hire an attorney.

Do not wait until the day before a potential court date because it may take time to get an initial appointment.

Where Do You Start?

Start by making a list of two or three lawyers you want to talk to about your case. Use the following resources to identify potential candidates:

  • Recommendations. Consult with family, friends, or coworkers. They may be able to recommend a lawyer they know of or have worked with in the past. This is often your best bet—good lawyers don’t always advertise because word of mouth is so important.
  • Bar Associations. Contact your local bar association. You can find a list at www.hg.org/northam-bar.html. You can also do a quick internet search by entering your state, county, or city followed by “bar association.” As a public service, many bar associations offer free lawyer referral services to the public. Many lawyers who participate in these services offer a reduced rate for a consultation. Fees after the initial consultation will depend on the rate you negotiate. Lawyers occasionally waive their fees and offer their services pro bono (for free), but that is rare. If you move forward after the initial consultation, you should be prepared to negotiate fees. Learn more in the “How Much Does a Lawyer Cost?” section below.
  • Internet. On the American Bar Association’s website, www.findlegalhelp.org, you can get a referral or access commercial lawyer directories, which are searchable by state. Some commercial services (such as www.lawyers.com or www.attorneylocate.com) do not charge a fee to access and search their directories. Their other services, however, may not be free.
  • Library. The Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory is one commercial service. Almost all public libraries carry this multi-volume directory.

What Kind of Lawyer Do You Need?

Focus on finding a local lawyer. Laws concerning animals differ from county to county and city to city, and court procedures differ in each jurisdiction. You can expect a local lawyer to know your applicable laws best. Plus, the more familiar your lawyer is with your local laws, court system, and even the tendencies of the individual judges and government attorneys in your area, the more effective he or she will be in representing you.

When you read online or print lawyer directories, you will see that lawyers tend to specialize. There are lawyers and law firms that focus on animal law including animal rights, protection, and welfare. However, a lawyer who specializes in animal law is not required. While an animal lawyer can be helpful, don’t limit yourself if you are unable to find one. Finding a lawyer who will listen to you, understands the situation, and wants to help is of the utmost importance.

Here are some suggestions when trying to find an attorney who meets the needs of your particular case:

Citation

The lawyers who may best assist you if you have received a citation or have been charged with a crime are those who describe themselves as “defense lawyers.” In particular, look for those who list themselves as “criminal defense” lawyers handling cases like “misdemeanors,” “traffic,” or “DUI.” You are, after all, the defendant in your case even if you have not been charged with a crime.

Civil Dispute

If your issue involves one of threatened eviction, you may want to look for an attorney who handles landlord-tenant issues. If you are involved in a threatened lawsuit regarding ownership or rights to an animal, you likely want a civil litigator. “General practice” lawyers are another option, especially those who regularly appear in court.

Animal Cruelty

Animal cruelty charges are investigated by local authorities and taken forward in court by prosecuting attorneys. Lack of proof or resources may be a hurdle to successful charges and prosecution. If you believe animal cruelty has occurred and there is a lack of action, you may wish to consult with an attorney on the matter.

Finally, while not always necessary, there are lawyers who specialize in animal law. Some lists can be accessed online, including at www.lawyers.com/Animal-Law/browse-by-location. Some nonprofit organizations concentrate on animal law, like the Animal Law Coalition (www.animallawcoalition.com), the Animal Legal Defense Fund (www.aldf.org), and Lawyers in Defense of Animals (www.njlida.org/index.asp). They may not all provide legal services representation but have resources and information available that can help.

How to Hire a Lawyer

Once you have the names of several lawyers who may be able to help you, it’s time to make an appointment to talk with each one. Plan ahead and make sure you have all relevant information ready beforehand.

Prepare for the Meeting

The first meeting should be as productive as possible. Here are three steps to help you prepare:

STEP 1

Gather information to bring with you to the meeting. The specific information will vary depending on your situation, but may include:

  • Any citation or other document regarding the dispute impending dispute. A citation will list your charges. If this is a civil matter, you may have a letter threatening legal action that explains the allegations against you.
  • Any photographs you have of the kittens or cats and/or the area they live in.
  • Veterinary and/or colony tracking records, including vaccination certificates for the cats.

Find the specific laws and ordinances applicable to your situation, if known. It’s the best way to save time in the first meeting with your potential attorney. Although the lawyer will have access to the laws, you can be a step ahead by reading the ordinances carefully and bringing a copy to your meeting. To learn more about finding your local laws, go to www.alleycat.org/FindCatLaws.

STEP 2

Be prepared to communicate the most relevant details of your situation. The first question the lawyer will likely ask you is: “What happened?” Keep in mind that too many details can be as confusing to lawyers as they are to the rest of us. What the lawyer needs initially is a simple chronological explanation of events that includes all of the facts. To prepare a concise and helpful explanation, if the dispute involves caring for a community of cats, consider the answers to these questions:

  • Whose property are the cats on?
  • If not your property, did you have written or oral permission to be there?
  • How many cats were there when you began caring for community cats?
  • How many cats have you trapped?
  • How many cats have you had spayed or neutered and vaccinated?
  • How many cats and kittens have you found homes for?
  • How many cats are there now?
  • What is the local animal control department’s approach to outdoor cats?
  • How often do you feed the cats?
  • Do you follow best practices such as those at www.alleycat.org/BestPractices?

Know how to summarize the situation from your point of view. Focus on events. Few situations can be seen only one way. For instance, a citation reflects the government’s view: you caused the problem. But is that how you see it? You may see yourself as an asset to your community, improving and protecting the lives of cats, and helping cats be better neighbors to the people who live near them. If so, make sure you explain this to the lawyer.

STEP 3

Rehearse what you plan to tell the lawyer. Take notes of important points you want to make and questions you want to ask.

At the Meeting

Begin by introducing yourself and thanking the lawyer for meeting with you. Make a point to mention that you have prepared for this meeting, so it is as productive and efficient as possible.

The information you gathered in the steps above will help you provide an overview of your situation and answer the question to the best of your ability. If it helps, you can bring in written notes and read from them. Having a pad of paper and a pen, or any other note-taking device, is useful, too. Your lawyer will probably have information you’ll want to write down and remember.

You can also ask the lawyer questions of your own. Some basic questions to cover are:

  • Have you handled cases like mine before?
  • Do you regularly appear in the court that my case is assigned to?
  • How long do I have to decide if I want you to represent me on this matter?
  • What is the best-case scenario?
  • If I lose, is there a way to appeal? If so, what happens in the meantime?
  • What are the possible outcomes of my case? What are possible sentences or fines?
  • What is the worst-case scenario for me in terms of verdict?
  • What do you recommend I do and why?
  • How long do you estimate it will take to resolve this case?
  • What steps will be involved?
  • Approximately how much will it cost me to fight this?
  • When would you bill me? Do I have to pay you anything in advance?
  • (If applicable) What does the up-front retainer fee cover?
  • (If applicable) Could we work out a payment plan?
  • How do you prefer to communicate with your clients (phone, email, text, etc.)?
  • What is your average response time to a client communication (24 hours, 2 business days, within a week)?

After your discussion, thank the lawyer for his or her time. Tell the lawyer that you will be in touch after you have made a decision.

After Meeting Each Lawyer

To help you decide which lawyer to hire, ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I feel comfortable talking to this lawyer?
  • How much will the lawyer charge? (See next section, “How Much Does a Lawyer Cost?”)
  • Did the lawyer listen to me?
  • Did the lawyer explain things in a way that I understand?
  • Did the lawyer understand and accept that one of my objectives here is to keep the cat(s) alive?
  • Did the lawyer seem truly interested in my case and/or demonstrate any concern for the cat(s)?

Once you have chosen which lawyer to hire, get in touch. He or she will probably have you sign an agreement detailing the parameters of your representation.

How Much Does a Lawyer Cost?

Legal fees are usually a factor in choosing and hiring a lawyer. It is helpful to also ask yourself: “How much will it cost me if I don’t hire a lawyer?” Consider this question not only in terms of court costs and legal fees, but also in terms of consequences you or the cat(s) might face if you lose.

How Do Lawyers Charge Clients?

Lawyers typically bill clients either hourly or by the case.

Hourly Billing

A lawyer who bills hourly charges the client for the actual time spent on the case. This includes phone calls, emails, and research or preparation. Hourly rates vary widely across geographic areas, practice specialties, years of experience, etc. Your local bar association may have information about typical rates in your area.

Keep in mind that a lawyer who charges a higher hourly rate may be more experienced than a lawyer charging a lower rate. Typically, a more experienced lawyer will have to spend less time on your case than an inexperienced lawyer. As a result, the more experienced lawyer’s total fees may be less than the lawyer charging the lower hourly rate.

Case Billing

Case billing means that the lawyer charges a flat fee to handle certain cases. For example, a lawyer may charge $1,500 to handle a drunk driving case regardless of the hours spent on the case.

NOTE: No matter which method a lawyer uses to charge clients, the lawyer you hire may ask you to pay a retainer fee before he or she begins working on your case. The amount of the fee is subject to negotiation.

Are There Lawyers Who Will Represent You for Free?

Maybe, but don’t count on it. Although various types of lawyers do represent clients for free, you may not qualify for their services.

Pro Bono Lawyers

Lawyers in private practice sometimes take cases on a pro bono, or free of charge, basis. They are selective in the cases they take and may have financial guidelines that determine eligibility for service. To identify lawyers in your area who may be willing to take your case pro bono, contact your local bar association.

Public Defenders/Court-appointed Attorneys

Generally, to qualify for the services of a public defender or a court-appointed attorney, the court action must involve criminal charges. The individual must be unable to afford a lawyer, as determined by court income guidelines, and must face an actual risk of imprisonment.

What Now?

If you have received a citation or are involved in a legal dispute, discussing the matter and your legal options with an attorney can be extremely helpful to fully understand your rights. Knowledge is power, and even if you decide not to hire an attorney to represent you in your case, his or her input and guidance will be beneficial.

When hiring an attorney, it is important to find someone who genuinely listens to you and fits your communication style (email, text, or phone). Searching for an attorney can be overwhelming sometimes, so remember to begin early and give yourself adequate time. Using this guide will help you find an attorney and be prepared to get the most out of your meeting.

You can learn more about cats and the law at alleycat.org/CatsAndTheLaw.