University Honours HKU Law Professor with Knowledge Exchange Excellence Award 2016

The University of Hong Kong (“HKU”) introduced the Knowledge Exchange (“KE”) Excellence Award in 2015/16. This University-level award has been introduced to recognise outstanding KE accomplishments that have made significant economic, social or cultural impacts to benefit society. Only Faculty KE Awardees in current and past years may be nominated by their Faculty to compete for the University’s award. As a past winner of the Law Faculty’s KE award in 2011, the Faculty nominated Ms. Amanda Whitfort, Associate Professor in the Department of Professional Legal Education, for the University-level award this year. Having reviewed the knowledge transfer impact of her publication: Review of Animal Welfare Legislation in Hong Kong (2010), the KE Executive Group selected Ms. Whitfort as the winner of the inaugural KE Excellence Award 2016. The Award Presentation Ceremony for Excellence in Teaching, Research and Knowledge Exchange 2016 was held on 27 March 2017 at the Grand Hall, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre, Centennial Campus.

KE together with Teaching and Research, form the three pillars that underpin all activities at HKU. HKU defines KE as engaging, for mutual benefit, with business, government or the public to generate, acquire, apply and make accessible the knowledge needed to enhance material, human, social, cultural and environmental well-being. The KE work Ms. Whitfort has undertaken, in partnership with Dr. Woodhouse of the Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has had profound policy implications and clear impact on society.

In 2008, Ms. Whitfort and Dr. Fiona Woodhouse, Deputy Director (Welfare) of Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (HK), were granted a Public Policy Research grant, by the Research Grants Council, to conduct a comparative study evaluating animal protection legislation. Hong Kong’s animal protection laws were drafted in the 1930s and the study was timely. After spending two years reviewing the adequacy of all of Hong Kong’s laws protecting animals kept for companionship, food, entertainment and laboratory use, and controlling wild and feral animals, the Review of Animal Welfare Legislation in Hong Kong was published.

The Review found that Hong Kong’s anti-cruelty legislation lacked the necessary power to assist animals in danger of suffering and abuse. The law is enforced only when an animal is the victim of an overtly cruel act. Criminal neglect of animals is not regarded as an offence. The study recommended significant reform to Hong Kong’s laws through the introduction of a new Animal Welfare Ordinance, which would impose on owners a positive duty to care properly for their animals. In regard to sentencing practices in animal cruelty cases, the study found that despite the maximum penalty for the offence having been raised in 2006, court sentences had remained lenient, even following convictions for sustained and serious abuse.

The Review also uncovered serious failures at local slaughterhouses and in live wet food markets to meet animal welfare standards prescribed by the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) Terrestrial Animal Health Code 2009 (Slaughter of Animals), to which China is a signatory.

In relation to the pet trade, the Review found Hong Kong’s lack of legislative control on animal trading had resulted in only two licensed dog breeders offering animals for sale in Hong Kong, with the remaining animals coming from unlicensed hobby breeders or import dealers. The study highlighted that the continued lack of legislation requiring the licensing of all dog breeders had allowed animals of dubious origin and health to be widely sold throughout the Territory, threatening public health and compromising animal welfare standards.

The Review provided the first and, to date, only empirical study of the adequacy of animal protection legislation in Hong Kong. It generated widespread public discussion about the treatment of animals and critically, provided empirical data to support NGO’s working in the field and seeking law reform. In 2011, the former Executive Director of SPCA (HK) made the following comments on the importance and impact of the Review:

This is the first review of its kind conducted in Hong Kong and its publication has been of immense value to society. It has created an excellent platform for positive change and much needed reform. We are currently utilising the Review’s findings as a basis for dialogue with government and other animal welfare stakeholders. We have also disseminated the results of the Review to our members and are using the findings as a means to marshal support for law reform.

The publication of Ms. Whitfort and Dr. Woodhouse’s Review raised a previously neglected field of study to a topic of widespread public debate and concern. Societal awareness of the poor state of Hong Kong’s animal welfare laws led to intense pressure on government to introduce law reform. Ms.Whitfort has given public lectures on her research, and has been invited to present her findings and recommendations to several government departments, including the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (“AFCD”), the Department of Food and Environmental Hygiene, the Department of Justice, the Hong Kong Police, Legislative Council members (“LegCo”) and other stakeholders, including veterinarians and frontline animal rescue officers.

Since publishing the Review, Ms. Whitfort has received regular requests to provide input to local and international news articles, radio talk back programmes and television exposés, focusing on animal protection laws in Hong Kong. The media has documented an increasing public concern with the adequacy of legislation available to address cases of cruelty to animals. Ms. Whitfort’s work has resulted in the introduction of specialised training for police and prosecutors in presenting animal cruelty cases at court and the AFCD is now meeting regularly with the police and SPCA (HK) to discuss animal welfare cases. The Department of Justice is also proactively reviewing sentences for animal cruelty convictions.

In a 2014 video, the former Secretary to the Hong Kong Law Reform Commission made the following observation of Ms. Whitfort’s work:

Professor Whitfort’s research on animal welfare legislation is extremely important. It puts forward the case, very strongly, for reform of Hong Kong’s legislation and it informs and encourages debate within government and the wider community. It is extremely difficult to have legislation changed. Virtually any government is conservative and resistant to change, but the process of change is hugely helped if you have, supporting your arguments, the kind of empirical, comparative research that Professor Whitfort has produced.

The Review has spawned important changes in legislation and policy. In November 2010, it was endorsed and adopted by six legislative parties sitting in LegCo who made a joint call on the government to implement the study’s findings in new animal welfare policies for Hong Kong. In the same year, Ms. Whitfort and Dr. Woodhouse were invited to join the AFCD’s Animal Welfare Advisory Group’s Legal Sub-committee, as expert advisors. The Sub-committee is charged with developing animal welfare initiatives in law and policy for the AFCD. In 2011, in response to one of the key recommendations made in the Review, the AFCD announced the introduction of a trial “Trap-Neuter-Return” programme (in conjunction with the SPCA) for managing the welfare of feral dogs and improved policies for the management of abandoned animals which allow easier adoption access for the public.

In 2016, Ms. Whitfort and Dr. Woodhouse’s key recommendations for reform of the pet trade were passed into law by the Public Health (Animals and Birds) (Animal Traders) Regulations. Alongside the new regulations, legally enforceable Licensing Conditions and Codes of Practice for the care of companion animals in Hong Kong were drafted by the Sub-committee, on the basis of the Review findings. These will come into effect in 2017 (initially for dogs and later for cats and exotic pets).

Ms. Whitfort’s pioneering work to improve the legislative protection of animals is far from over. The Sub-committee she sits on, within the AFCD, continues to examine the findings of the Review to support further law reform initiatives including Hong Kong’s need to update its legislation to comply with OIE requirements for pre-slaughter stunning of food animals in wet markets and the modernisation of Hong Kong’s animal cruelty laws to recognise criminal negligence as a basis for liability for prosecution. The Faculty and the University celebrate Ms. Whitfort’s significant achievements and support her continued endeavors to improve society.

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