Has the Law Failed to Protect the Public from Dangerous Dogs?

Has the Law Failed to Protect the Public from Dangerous Dogs?

Following the tragic death of 14-year-old Jade Anderson after being attacked by at least three dogs at the home of her friend, the question must be asked whether the law governing which type of dogs we are allowed to keep in our home and the processes regarding a suspected dangerous dog are sufficient to keep the public safe.

[T]he question must be asked whether the law governing which type of dogs we are allowed to keep in our home and the processes regarding a suspected dangerous dog are sufficient to keep the public safe.

It seems that dog attacks in the UK are not a rare occurrence. Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) show that there have been 6,450 admissions for dog bites or strikes in the last year, which is a 5.2 per cent increase upon the previous year and does not even account for the injuries which are dealt with solely in A&E. These worrying statistics are exacerbated by the fact that children under ten had the highest rate of admissions according to age group (17 per 100,000; 1,040 admissions).

So why is it that such attacks take place? What measures do we currently have in place to ensure that dangerous dogs are not kept in the home?

The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 currently bans four breeds of dog: the Pit Bull Terrier, the Japanese Tosa, the Dogo Argenino and Fila Brasileiro.

However, many critics of the legislation say that banning these breeds of dogs is unnecessary and does not solve the problem because particular types of dogs are not predisposed to violence – rather the cause of the problem is the owner. Trevor Cooper, a solicitor specialising in dog law and legal advisor to the Dogs Trust, stated that the Act was:

[P]unitive rather than controlling…It tries to weed out certain types of dog but you can’t prejudge a dog’s behaviour. It’s down to the way the dog has been brought up.

This was supported by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which stated in February 2013 that:

[C]urrent laws have comprehensively failed to tackle irresponsible dog ownership… The Home Office approach of tackling antisocial behaviour is too simplistic; and fails to reflect the impact that poor breeding and training by irresponsible owners can have on a dog’s behaviour.

The dogs that attacked Jade Anderson were not considered illegal under the Act. Again, we can see that it is not certain breeds of dog that the law should be addressing, but making the owners of the animals more responsible for their actions in the upbringing of their dogs.

Currently, the Act also does not provide for legal action if a dog attacks a visitor upon its owner’s private property. This unsatisfactory state of the law has long been a problem for postal workers in particular, with an average of 3,000 postmen and women being attacked per year. It may be the case that the owner of the dogs that killed Jade Anderson will escape prosecution due to the incident taking place at the owner’s home.

It seems that dog attacks in the UK are not a rare occurrence.

So what is the Government doing to tackle the inadequacies in the law?

The Government has announced that it will introduce compulsory microchipping for all dogs. If, after April 2016, any dog is found not to have a microchip, then legal action will be brought against the owner. This move will help to cut the number of stray dogs on the streets and it is also believed that it will ensure dog owners become more responsible for their animals.

In regard to attacks which take place on private property, the Act will be changed so that, no matter where an attack takes place, a legal remedy will be available. It is anticipated that Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, will announce changes to close the loophole which prevents police from taking action against the owners of dogs if the dogs attack somebody on private property.

However, groups such as the RSPCA have raised concerns that these recent Government recommendations do not actually address the problem at hand. The aim should be to prevent these attacks from happening rather than providing legal remedies after an attack has taken place. David Bowles, the RSPCA’s head of public affairs stated that:

[C]ompulsory microchipping and extending the law to cover private property as well as public spaces is a welcome move. However, on their own we don’t believe they will reduce the number of stray dogs, make owners act more responsibly to their dogs or ensure fewer dogs bite people or other animals… The number of warnings the RSPCA issued to dog owners due to poor welfare last year was up by 12% on 2011, while the number of dog bites that required hospitalisation has gone up by 26% in the past four years. If the Government is trying to tackle these very real problems then we don’t see how compulsory microchipping will help reduce either of these figures.

The type of preventative measures which the RSPCA are calling for can be seen in the Scottish system. In Scotland, local councils can hand out a Dog Control Notice (DCN) to an owner if an animal consistently acts out of control. The Scottish Parliament have insisted that the DCN’s focus is on a ‘deed not breed’ approach to tackling irresponsible dog ownership. A DCN means that a number of conditions can be imposed on the owner, such as muzzling the dog or keeping the dog on a lead whenever it is in a place to which the public have access. In addition, if the dog is male, it may be neutered and the owner and their dog required to attend a training course on the control of dogs.

In Scotland, local councils can hand out a dog control notice (DCN) to an owner if an animal consistently acts out of control.

Dog Control Orders were introduced in England in 2006, but are only issued for minor offences such as not keeping a dog on a lead or not cleaning up after the animal has fouled. Surprisingly, a dog owner will only incur legal action if the dog actually carries out an attack. Even if neighbours or members of the public raise suspicions and report their concerns about an uncontrolled dog to the police or local authority, no action can be taken if the dog has not actually bitten someone. In the case of Jade Anderson, the dogs which took her life had been reported several times, but nothing could be done because of this policy.

If DCNs were introduced in England, following Scotland’s example, we would not have to wait for somebody to be injured before a dog and its owner could be held accountable. A dog’s alarming behaviour could be enough for the authority to demand an owner takes action. It can be argued that this is the type of preventative measure we need if we are to learn anything at all from the death of Jade Anderson.

Evidently, microchipping and legislative reform ensure that owners will be legally responsible for attacks by their dogs on their property, but may not be sufficient if we do not want to see another death or serious injury caused by a dangerous dog. These measures only help to ensure that an owner is punished after an attack has been committed and the dog dealt with, which can often include the animal being put down.

However, if these changes were applied along with the introduction of the Scottish-style DCN, then the Government, animal welfare groups and society as a whole could feel safer in the knowledge that the current weak laws were being transformed. There would exist a system by which a dangerous animal can be brought to the attention of the appropriate authority and an appropriate measure meted out. Microchipping will help to ensure that any dog can be recognised and traced back to its owner so that the authorities would know who is responsible for the welfare of the dog and could impose conditions when necessary. If these measures still fail, the dog owner will still be responsible for any attack which the animal carries out due to the legislative reform.

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