Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Cruelty Definition:

Conduct that causes bodily or mental injury, or apprehension to such injury, to a person or an animal, without legitimate purpose.

Related Terms: Mental Cruelty, Physical Cruelty, Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Cruelty appears in three distinct areas of the law: international or human rights law in the prohibition of cruel punishment; in animal law in the criminal offence of cruelty to animals (see comments below) and in divorce law, for which it is a cause for divorce in many jurisdictions.

Cruelty in Divorce Law

Most jurisdictions now allow divorce on the grounds of a separation for a defined period of time (such as, in Canada, one (1) year). But a significant body of law was developed prior to that development as cruelty - mental or physical - stood as one of only two reasons for a divorce (the other being adultery).

In Cox v Cox, the Australian Court adopted these words: "... an act is cruel if it proceeds from or shows indifference to or pleasure in another's distress...."

Another judge in the same case added:

"Conduct in respect whereof relief will be given can be placed into two categories.

"In one class each individual act is such as will affect or is likely to affect, as a single factor, the other party adversely. Such an act can be regarded as cruelty per se.

"The other class consists of a course of conduct that has been called constructive cruelty.

"Where there is violence (even the threat of violence may be sufficient), the conduct is in one division.

"In the other division, there is a course of conduct in which no actual violence, and, it may be, no explicit threat of violence has, has occurred. It will happen,  perhaps it will usually happen, that the acts of a delinquent husband or wife are a mixture or blend of both. Acts that in themselves are not such as to cause pain or unhappiness of a permanent character, or to affect health when isolated and not systematic, may, if part of a course of conduct that is persisted in, causing danger, or the apprehension of danger, to health, constitute cruelty."

In Paton v Paton, the Court recognized that:

"... mental cruelty ... cannot then be more savage and more hurtful than physical assaults, but it has long been established that in order to prove such cruelty it must be shown that the petitioner has suffered an injury to help, bodily or mental, or a reasonable apprehension of danger of such injury."

In 2001, the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench used these words:

"Cruelty is generally defined as the intentional and malicious infliction of suffering on another. Proof of intention is not necessary to establish cruelty for the purpose of divorce. The test of cruelty is a subjective one, though there is an objective element to it in that the conduct complained of must be of a 'grave and weighty' nature.

"... that conduct relied upon to establish cruelty is not a trivial act, but one of a 'grave and weighty' nature, and not merely conduct which can be characterized as little more than a manifestation of incompatibility of temperament between the spouses. The whole matrimonial relations must be considered, especially if the cruelty consists of reproaches, complaints, accusations, or constant carping criticism. A question most relevant for consideration is the effect of the conduct complained of upon the mind of the affected spouse. The determination of what constitutes cruelty in a given case must, in the final analysis, depend upon the circumstances of the particular case having due regard to the physical and mental condition of the parties, their character and their attitude towards the marriage relationship."

Cruelty in the Context of Animals

In this area, the law recognize that in the ordinary course of human society, great pain is intentionally inflicted upon animals but for legitimate purpose (eg. hot iron branding). Thus, in order to constitute cruelty to animals in the eyes of the law, the conduct must be bereft of justification or lawful or legitimate purpose or object.


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