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The Law Bites Back: A Review Of The New Guidelines On Sentences For Keepers Of Dangerous Dogs

Legislation prohibiting the ownership of certain dogs and making it an offence to have a dog dangerously out of control in a public place and to cause injury whilst out of control has always been heavily criticised by many. It is alleged that the legislation in the form of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was passed too quickly without proper consideration due to building pressure from the media.

The dangerous dog legislation has once again come into the limelight due to an increase in the number of people sentenced for dangerous dog offences in recent years, reaching 1,192 cases in 2010. The beginning of this year has also seen numerous new stories of individuals being savagely attacked by dangerous dogs such as in March 2012 when five police officers were injured, three seriously, when a pitbull-type dog attacked them during a raid on a suspect’s house in East London.

It was decided however that it may be more effective to publish sentencing guidelines detailing what the starting point should be for the various offences contained in the legislation rather than to re-look at the legislation itself again.

The sentencing guidelines published by the Sentencing Council on the 15 May 2012 set down a tougher approach to the way those convicted of dangerous dog offences are treated by the courts. Anne Arnold, District Judge and member of the Sentencing Council said;

‘Most dog owners are responsible and take good care of their pets, but we’ve seen more and more cases coming before the courts of owners who have put the public at risk or let their dog cause injuries – sometimes very serious – to people.’

‘As a result, this new sentencing guideline encourages courts to use their full powers when dealing with offenders so that they are jailed, where appropriate. It also gives guidance to courts on making the best use of their powers so that people can be banned from keeping dogs, genuinely dangerous dogs can be put down and compensation can be paid to victims.’

The new guidelines aim to provide clear guidance to Judges so that there is a consistent approach and appropriate sentences are given to owners of dangerous dogs. Now a Judge has all they need in one document to help them sentence the offender.

The starting point for sentencing people who have allowed a dangerous dog to injure someone has been set at 6 months in custody and where appropriate the Judge should consider up to 18 months in custody. Offenders convicted of possessing a dangerous dog could face up to 6 months in custody. This will encourage the courts to give out more severe sentences where appropriate. Some offenders could still be discharged if they can show that they tried to stop an attack.

The new guidelines will mean that more prison sentences will be given, more community orders will be given and fewer offenders will receive discharges. It will also encourage the courts to make the best use of their powers by banning irresponsible owners who put the public at risk from keeping dogs, order genuinely dangerous dogs to be put down, arrange compensation to the victim and order destruction of the dog if necessary.

The guideline has been published following a consultation with members of the public, judges, magistrates, the police and animal welfare organisations. The Council has; broadened the definition of vulnerable victims so it also includes the elderly, disabled, blind or visually impaired, extended the guidelines to include injuries to other animals as an aggravating factor and training a dog to fight or possessing paraphernalia for dog fighting is now also a factor increasing the seriousness of the offence.

The guideline does not include incidents where a dog is deliberately used in an attack because the offender would be charged with assault or a serious violent offence which would carry a much greater penalty than under the dangerous dogs legislation.

The clear message which is being sent to dog owners is to keep them under control, behave responsibly or face a harsher sentence. In effect, the law is biting back.

Many still remain sceptical as to whether these new sentencing guidelines will do anything to bring down the rising number of dog attacks we have seen in recent years. Only time will tell.

The new guidelines will be used in courts from the 20 August 2012.



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