‘Animals as Legal Entity’ – Karnail Singh v. State of Haryana: A critical analysis

The current paradigm is being challenged and legislations, political declarations and judgments across the globe are recognizing the rights of nature, moving towards Earth-Centric paradigm. Such a step is inexorable as the traditional environmental legislation approach, in which nature is a passive element being protected by law, has proved not to be much effective. Amidst this, legal systems across the world are taking a step forward and conferring legal personhood to natural elements, like rivers, glaciers, lakes, national parks and so on. In this list, animals have been added by Punjab and Haryana High Court in Karnail Singh v. State of Haryana. Previously, Uttarakhand High Court has also conferred legal status to Ganga and Yamuna rivers, Yamunotri and Gangotri glaciers, etc. The judgment has raised certain ambiguities pertaining to the fact that who will be the representatives, the mechanism to be followed and implications of violating the same. Conferring legal personhood to nature is still in its inception stage, and calls for the need for a new system to define rights, liabilities and responsibilities attached, with a proper mechanism to enforce the same.


The ‘rights of nature movement’ is capturing the world’s attention, which holds that nature too has fundamental rights. Several efforts have been made in past, like the Paris Agreement, to move towards Earth-Centric paradigm where humans are a part of the planetary system and aim at living in harmony with it. Legal systems across the world are taking a step forward and conferring legal personhood to natural elements, like rivers, glaciers, lakes, national parks and so on. Citizens are the guardians of the animal kingdom and just as corporations, idols, rivers have been declared as legal entities, animals too are required to be conferred with the same status in order to protect and promote the welfare of animals.

In a recent judgment, Punjab & Haryana High Court bench consisting of Justice Rajiv Sharma has conferred animals with the status of a legal entity. He has reiterated the judgment he delivered in Uttarakhand High Court[i] declaring animal kingdom as a legal entity and the citizens of the state were declared to be loco parentis to ensure welfare and protection of animals.


“All animals have honour and dignity. Every species has an inherent right to live and is required to be protected by law. The privacy and the rights of animals are to be respected and protected from unlawful attacks.” The judgment relied upon the jurisprudence in Animal Welfare Board of India v Nagaraj, where it was held that Article 21 of the Constitution of India is not just confined to humans, but extend to animals as well. The inclusion of animals in the community of legal persons will dignify them by forcing humans to value for animals, rather than seeing them merely as objects or something that humans can ‘use’ and ‘abuse.’ The court acknowledged the fact that concept of legal personality has evolved with scientific discovery, evolving standards of morality, and human experience to not only include all humans, but also non-humans. It is the moral duty and legal obligation under the doctrine of parens patriae to protect the rights of animals. Court further said that though animals are mute but we, as a society have to speak on their behalf.


Judicial legislation

Few individuals were accused of exporting cow unlawfully from Haryana under Section 4B of Prohibition of Cow Slaughter Act. The petition was filed to ask for a particular relief and the court suo motu expanded the scope and granted legal personality to animals, this leads to judicial legislation. Further, the relying source of the court to pass such a judgment was New Zealand conferring legal status to a national park, and so on. But, the fact to be considered is that the declaration in New Zealand was done by the legislature, and not by the courts.

Animals as legal entities

Salmond defines a legal person as ‘Any being to whom the law attributes a capacity of interests and therefore, of rights, of acts, and therefore of duties.’[ii] Legal personality is a good servant, but it may be a bad master.[iii]

A number of countries have granted legal personhood to various natural resources, be it a river, national park, etc. One such example is New Zealand, who in 2014 conferred legal personality to a national park, giving ‘all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person.’ Further, in 2017, New Zealand declared a river to be a legal person. Here, the concept of legal personality was introduced as a mechanism to neutralize the issue of ownership and establish a co-management regime.

Attributing a legal status to a company implies that it can enforce its own rights, similar is the case with nature. But, while a company is formed, it is mentioned in its articles who will be controlling the company and thereby enforcing its rights. But, this judgment merely confers the legal personality on animals without clarifying who represents the animals and requirements of such a representative. In contrast to this, New Zealand has specifically mentioned that the river will be legally represented by the office of Te Pou Tupua appointed by Whanganui Maori and the crown.[iv] The Act clearly mentions that the office is responsible for protecting its status, promoting health and well-being, performing rights and duties and responsible for liabilities.[v] Similarly, the national park is legally represented by Te Urewera Board, which will create a management plan.

While conferring legal status to rivers Ganga and Yamuna, Uttarakhand High Court appointed Director of NAMAMI Gange, Chief Secretary of State of Uttarakhand and Advocate General of the State of Uttarakhand as persons in loco parentis who will protect and conserve the rivers. It also mentioned about creation of a Ganga Management Board,[vi] though this judgment was stayed by Supreme Court later.[vii] Further, when Uttarakhand High Court conferred legal personality upon glaciers that feed these two rivers, and associated rivers, streams, rivulets, lakes, air, meadows, dales, jungles, wetlands, grasslands, springs and waterfalls, it named Praveen Kumar, Ishraw Singh, Balram K. Gupta and MC Mehta as representatives to protect and conserve the listed natural features.[viii] Such clarifications regarding who will be persons in loco parentis have not been made in the concerned judgment, it merely states that all citizens throughout Haryana will be loco parentis. It poses a difficulty as to who shall be held liable in case of violation of rights and duties.

Conferring rights upon animals will also attract duties, which is not practical. Also, no clarity has been made regarding punishment on the violation. Conferring legal personality upon animals may provoke incalculable and diverse conflicts.

Conferring a legal personality raises a question as to whether a writ of habeas corpus can be issued against animals. A similar issue was raised when an application for habeas corpus was filed in New York Court on behalf of a chimpanzee who was held in captivity, which was rejected by the court stating that right to liberty cannot be made available to any entity which is incapable of assuming duties and upholding responsibilities.[ix]

Though Article 51A of the Constitution of India states that it is the fundamental duty of all citizens to have compassion for living creatures. It uses the expression ‘compassion’ as contrasted to the duty imposed by the court to protect the rights of animals. Also, being a fundamental duty, it is not justiciable in a court of law. But, the imposition of duty by the court has made it justiciable in the court of law.

Further, legal personality to animals will have a severe blow to non-vegetarians as killing animals would not imply a violation of their right to life, as Article 21 uses the expression ‘person’ and not citizens and the scope of Article 21 has also been extended to animals.[x]

It is agreed that animals do have intrinsic worth, right to live with dignity and right to self-determination stemming not only from development in science, but also from cultural and religious beliefs that have evolved in India, but in order to justify conferring legal personhood, it is essential to chalk out a proper mechanism to enforce the same.

[i] Narayan Dutt Bhatt v. Union of India, (PIL) NO. 43 OF 2014.

[ii] Gray, The nature and the sources of the law, 273 (2nd ed., 1921).

[iii] Smith, Bryant, Legal Personality, Yale LJ., 283–299 (1928).

[iv] Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act, §18(1), (2017).

[v] Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act, §14(2), (2017).

[vi] Mohd. Salim v. State of Uttarakhand, WP.PIL no. 126 of 2014.

[vii] State of Uttarakhand v. Mohd. Salim, Special Leave to Appeal (C) No(s). 016879/2017.

[viii] Lalit Miglani v. State of Uttarakhand, W.P.PIL No. 140 of 2015.

[ix] The Non-Human Rights project v. Patrick C. Lavery, 152 A.D.3d 73 (2017).

[x] Animal Welfare Board of India v Nagaraj, (2014) 7 SCC 547.


Jaya Verma


Jaya Verma is a third-year student from Maharashtra National Law University, Nagpur. Her areas of interest include Environmental Law and Human Rights Law.

One response to “‘Animals as Legal Entity’ – Karnail Singh v. State of Haryana: A critical analysis”

  1. Hi Jaya, this read has rich contents. Well researched work indeed.

    About animals being vest with legal personality, it is the view in the UK and here in Nigeria that there is no such possibility. The closest to conceptions like legal personality in animals come from holding properties in trust for a class of animals (as against an individual animal) or offences of cruelty to animals (s.495 of the Criminal Code of Nigeria for instance) but even these are not to be conceived as grounds for vesting legal personality on animals as the rights and duties here are not in the interest of the animals but the state itself.

    Followed your analysis of the Karnail Singh’s case and I sure learnt a thing or two. I also do not accept the decision of vesting legal personality in lower animals.

    Please check out my blog. My most recent work is on legal personality. It is a long read but might be beneficial to you. The referenced copy is available on request.

    Liked by 1 person

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