Proposed increase in sentences available for animal cruelty offences
The government has recently announced that it is planning to introduce legislation which will increase the maximum custodial sentence for animal cruelty offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
The current limit is one of six months’ imprisonment. The new proposals would raise this to five years. This would bring England and Wales into line with other countries’ policies on animal cruelty. It would also correct an issue of proportionality in relation to penalties available for other offences.
Offences covered by the Act
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 makes all of the following a criminal offence:
- causing animals unnecessary suffering (whether intentionally or not)
- improperly docking dogs’ tails
- causing unnecessary mutilation
- administering unauthorised poisons or drugs
- participating in the organisation or facilitation of animal fights
- failing a duty of care to particular animals.
The Act adopts a wide definition of ‘animal’. It includes any “vertebrate other than man.”
Current sentencing policy
The Act allows for a range of penalties. These range from absolute discharges to custodial sentences of up to six months in length. The statistics on sentences imposed upon people convicted of animal cruelty in 2015 are revealing. In that year, 933 people were convicted of offences under the Animal Welfare Act.
A breakdown of that total shows the following distribution of the penalties for animal cruelty offences:
Penalty Number of people
Immediate custodial sentence 91
Suspended sentence 202
Community sentence 341
Conditional discharge 100
Absolute discharge 3
The RSPCA has investigated the custodial element of that breakdown further. Only three people received the maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment. Those who received four-month sentences included, it is argued, offenders who gained credit for a guilty plea having committed an offence that potentially warranted a six-month sentence.
Why some say that increase is necessary
The view of the Government and various animal rights organisations is that a disconnect exists between these punishments and the animal cruelty offences themselves. Recent cases which have prompted this change include a man who purchased a number of puppies for the sole purpose of killing them by beating, choking and stabbing. The current sentences available to the courts are unable to do justice to such instances of cruelty.
The reforms are also supported by the manifest disparity between penalties for animal cruelty offences in England and Wales and those in other jurisdictions.
For example, the maximum sentences for animal cruelty in Germany and Northern Ireland are three years and five years respectively.
The argument is further strengthened by looking at the maximum sentences attached to other crimes. Fly tipping, for example, carries a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment. The same sentence is also the limit for abstracting electricity. Many would argue that the damage and requisite mind-set involved in animal cruelty offences should mean the maximum penalty should at least be to that of these other crimes.
The new guidelines and their context
The Government is planning to produce a draft of the new legislation towards the end of the year. The main provision will be the increase in the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months’ imprisonment to five years. People who commit the most serious crimes against animals, such as the example reported above, may then face a prison sentence which is measured in years. It will be comparable to a conviction for an offence such as assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
This policy change follows a previous related announcement on the proposed use of CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses. The timing of both proposals represents an attempt to change the UK’s reputation for animal welfare as it leaves the European Union.
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