The UCLA School of Law Dog Administrative Hearings Clinic is the product of an innovative partnership between City of Los Angeles Department of Animal Services (LAAS) and UCLA Law. Students in the clinic practice several practical legal skills while providing valuable public service. Participants learn how to conduct actual hearings and to analyze evidence in order to make fair determinations and recommendations in each case. The clinic brings together concepts from constitutional due process, evidence, property law, and animal law in the context of subject matter narrow enough that students can focus on practice skills in questioning, fact investigation, the analysis of facts in relation to statutes, developing a theory of a case, and writing persuasive reports and recommendations.
Every year, a large number of complaints are filed about dogs in the City of Los Angeles. People claim that their neighbors' dog barks too much or that a particular dog poses an unreasonable risk to public safety. The City, too, can file complaints against dog owners about their allegedly dangerous dogs. These complaints are resolved through administrative hearings to determine whether a dog's behavior is problematic and, if so, the best way to address it. The focus is on prevention of future incidents rather than punishment for past violations of the relevant law.
While these types of hearings take place in jurisdictions around the country, the UCLA School of Law Dog Administrative Hearings Clinic is unique. This clinic gives UCLA Law students the opportunity to serve as hearing examiners in these quasi-judicial proceedings held under the authority of the City of Los Angeles Department of Animal Services (LAAS). Indeed, it is the closest law students can come to serving as judges while in law school. UCLA Law Professor Taimie Bryant and experienced professionals in LAAS provide extensive training before UCLA Law students can be appointed to serve as hearing examiners. After students are appointed, the same team supervises them as they conduct hearings and produce reports with recommendations for the General Manager.
Work in the clinic can be challenging. Victims of a dog's aggressive behavior can include dogs and other animals as well as humans. Sorting out what triggered a dog and predicting the dog's future likelihood of causing harm can be difficult, especially when there were no witnesses to an incident. Unique situations pose unique challenges. For instance, it can be effective to impose conditions of ownership to prevent specific dogs from interacting with people and other dogs unless under direct supervision. However, that is usually effective only when their owners live in residences that allow for restriction of the dog's interactions. What about dogs belonging to individuals without such residences? Those dogs and the people who care about them are greatly disadvantaged in a system that relies heavily on restricting dogs' interactions to prevent risk of harm to others. This is just one example of a difficult situation hearing examiners encounter and must resolve with fairness and compassion. In fact, every case the clinic handles has unique and novel features, which require care and attention to details.
Work in the clinic is interesting also because of lack of legal clarity about some of the rules that apply. Imagine a situation in which a dog bites a bicyclist on a cement beach bike path where there is signage stating, “No dogs on the beach.” Does that mean the sand part of the beach only? Is the cement bike path part of the “beach” because it is lying on top of the sand? Suppose the dog was on a leash but managed to bite a person anyway. Does being on a leash mean that the dog is “under the control” of the dog’s owner? Does the severity of the bite help to answer that question?
Finally, work in the clinic requires considerable flexibility because laws, rules, and agency personnel change. Different types of changes can occur suddenly, necessitating quick adjustments in procedure or in recommendations to be conceptualized differently than when first developed.
Because of all of these challenges, the clinic provides a particularly useful opportunity for future lawyers to learn and practice important legal skills. Students who gain the most benefit from the clinic are good at time management, flexibility, working with a variety of people regarding complaints about their dogs, and receiving and applying constructive feedback.