Home ▸ Without access to justice, we're just law-breaking chickens

Without access to justice, we're just law-breaking chickens

Several years ago, everyone wanted backyard chickens. And by everyone, I mean my hipster neighbors. I have a lot of hipster neighbors. I know about the trend in backyard chickens because as the unofficial neighborhood lawyer – a dubious honor achieved by (a) being a lawyer, (b) living in the neighborhood, and (c) having both facts known – I was asked many questions about chicken laws.

If you are a lawyer among nonlawyers, the assumption is that you know all laws everywhere. The phrases “that’s not my practice area” or “that’s not my jurisdiction” or even “I am genuinely at a loss for how to help you” are futile. For people I like, I will try to help (while nonetheless disclaiming all liability for wrong answers). In spite of myself, I do like my hipster neighbors and so set out to learn chicken laws[1].

If you google “chicken law Los Angeles,” you’ll find a lot of information. One of the top links informs you that Los Angeles city law requires chickens to be kept at least 20 feet from their owner’s residence and 35 feet from neighboring residences. The link also notes that roosters must be kept at least 100 feet away from residences. These requirements are repeated on many different websites, all of which refer to one another in a research ouroboros. Only one website provides a “source” citation, and this is to a dead link. As a last resort, I turned to actual legal research.

The Los Angeles City Municipal Code is available for free through American Legal Publishing Corporation, a private company. Searches on this site are awkward, but possible. Looking up “chicken” gets only one hit, which relates to commercial chicken raising. “Rooster” also gets one hit, which states that people in the city of Los Angeles can own only one rooster. I searched for “poultry.” Six hits, which allow noncommercial ownership of “poultry” in several different zones, but offer no other restrictions. Case closed?

Not so fast. There is also the Los Angeles County Municipal Code, available for free through Municode, a private company. Los Angeles residents must abide by both city and county laws. Under county rules, fowl may not be within 50 feet of a stream, pond, or other consumable water source (11.38.600). Further, they may not be kept within 35 feet of a restaurant or residence, or within 100 feet of a school, hospital, or similar institution (11.16.090). In light agricultural zones, fowl can be raised noncommercially if they are on an area of more than one acre and at least 50 feet from a street, highway, or residence (22.24.070(B)).

The original and widely distributed information seems taken from a brochure issued by the Los Angeles (city) Department of Animal Services, which contains these distance regulations for chickens and roosters (also for camels, kangaroos, and zebras). I found this information using the Wayback Machine, and that brochure was removed around 2009. In other words, someone did research almost 10 years ago, and that information continues to be used as authority by many people.

This is understandable! If I wanted chickens, I would find an easy answer and then go about doing whatever chicken owners do. To find the real answer requires an understanding of the law, government structure, and research strategies, and an almost pathological desire for resolution. Why would anyone do this? Why not just believe the summaries provided on other websites?

As access-to-justice concerns go, this ranks substantially behind everything else in the world. But it’s emblematic of a greater problem. We are subject to millions of laws, regulations, and rules, from federal to state, city to county, and courthouse to government office. Most of us learn early in life that “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” but ignorance of the law is situationally guaranteed. In the United States, it is impossible to have complete knowledge of the rules that govern us.

Further, in Los Angeles, neither our city nor our county governments provide this information themselves: they contract with private companies to do it. Those private companies then tell us that what they publish “may not reflect the most current legislation” and “should not be relied upon as the definitive authority for local legislation.”[2] In other words, “don’t blame us if this is incorrect.” The definitive version for the city is said to be the “official printed copy.” For the county, you have to call in to see if there have been any updates since the web version was published. Neither of these are sufficient solutions in a modern era.

Access to information is access to justice. If there is no accessible information, if it is difficult to navigate, if it is difficult to understand, how can anyone be surprised when shortcuts are taken? How can anyone be surprised when people seek non-legal (but direct) solutions to their problems? Law makers and law translators need to meet people where they’re at, and provide online, plain language, well-designed answers to everyday legal questions. Without this, we’re all just lawbreaking chickens.

 

[1] For purposes of this article, I am giving my neighbors the benefit of the doubt and ignoring federal and state animal welfare and anti-cruelty laws. In real life, I’m keeping my eyes and ears open.