The New Bill on Dangerous Dogs: What Does it Cover?

The New Bill on Dangerous Dogs: What Does it Cover?

Following several fatal dog attacks in recent years, new proposals have been suggested to strengthen the legislation surrounding dangerous dogs. Part 7 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill would amend the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to include attacks taking place on private property as well as attacks on assistance dogs. The aim of the Bill is to ‘ensure that enforcement agencies target irresponsible owners of dangerous dogs.’ Additionally, the government are holding a consultation which could lead to an increase in the maximum sentence given to the owner of the offending dog.

Private property

Currently, the 1991 Act only covers attacks on public property and private property where dogs are prohibited from being, for example a park. However, attacks do occur on private property and the Act does not cover this. In 2012, over 3000 postal workers were attacked, 70 per cent of which occurred on private property. Furthermore, there have been five children and one adult killed as a result of dog attacks on private property since 2007. Under current laws, no prosecutions could be brought against the owners for the deaths of these six individuals because the dogs were not prohibited from being on the property. Mr Fuller, a conservative MP, argued in the Bill’s Committee Debate on 4 June 2013 that ‘victims of crime are being let down considerably.’ (column number 334)
This certainly appears to be the case and the new provisions would help to protect the public from dangerous dogs in all places, regardless of the type of property – public or private.

If these proposals existed in March, the owners of the dogs which attacked Jade Anderson would have been prosecuted for her death.

The provisions in Clause 98 of the Bill provide an exception if the attack is a ‘householder case’. This is a welcome exception which allows the dog to protect their owner’s home. If a trespasser, or someone the owner believes to be a trespasser, is bitten or injured by a dog, the owner will not be liable for prosecution; the rationale behind this exception being self-defence. Under current laws, such attacks would anyway be exempt from prosecution since by definition they occur on private property

Assistance dogs

As well as widening the scope for prosecution in cases of human victims, the Bill will also cover attacks on assistance dogs. To ensure this is consistently applied, the definition of an assistance dog would be the same as provided in s 178(1) of the Equality Act 2010. This is another welcome amendment to the 1991 Act seeing as attacks on assistance dogs are on the rise. Recent figures show that every month ten guide dogs are attacked. Between March 2011 and February 2013 there were 240 reported attacks on guide dogs, of which five had to be retired, at a cost of more than £170,000 to the charity. However, should attacks on assistance dogs be punished as severely as attacks on children and adults?

Guide Dog charities would argue attacks on an assistance dog are just as severe, and should, therefore, be punished with the same force. Richard Leaman, the Chief Executive of the Guide Dogs Association, said:

A change in the law can’t come quickly enough for our guide dog owners, who too often have to bear the devastating consequences of these attacks. When a guide dog is attacked, someone with sight loss can completely lose their means of getting out and about independently. The impact on their life is huge and we are calling on the government to do everything in its power to promote responsible dog ownership, deter these attacks, and ensure this deeply worrying trend does not continue.

Such attacks are also described by David Cowdrey, the Guide Dogs Campaigns Manager, as leaving ‘a blind or partially sighted person a virtual prisoner in their own home’.
On the other hand, Mr Browne, Minister of State for the Home Department, argued in the Bill’s Committee Debate on 4 June 2013 that ‘there may be a strong case for a judge to have access to a higher sentence’ for attacks on people (column 347). He also suggested that the judge should be able to differentiate whether the attack caused injury or a death when sentencing the defendant.

Increased maximum sentence

The government is currently undertaking a consultation to decide whether the maximum sentence for the owner of an attacking dog should be raised from two years to life imprisonment. This is perhaps the most controversial area of reform being suggested. Should owners of attacking dogs be sentenced to life imprisonment?

There are strong arguments both for and against this change in the law. Currently, with regards to fatal attacks on people, Deputy Chief Constable Pritchard, the lead on dangerous dogs for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said:

They sometimes use manslaughter provisions to deal with those cases. However, proving manslaughter is extremely difficult in certain dog attacks, so we, therefore, rely on the provisions covering an out of control dog. Proving that a dog is out of control is easier, but the sanction for that is a maximum of two years imprisonment. When an attack by a dog on a person has lead to a fatality, I would suggest that two years is a very small penalty.

Richard Fuller also pointed out in the Committee Debate that the average sentence given to a dog owner for the death of a child by an out of control dog is eight weeks. This highlights his earlier statement that victims of crime are being considerably let down. Therefore, increasing the maximum sentence to life imprisonment seems appropriate to and would align the sentencing with that of manslaughter.

On the other hand, can owners be punished for something their dog has done, considering they are often acting without direction? When approaching the proposed sentence increase from this point of view it seems extremely unfair. If a dog acts completely out of character it seems inappropriate to sentence the owner to life imprisonment. It implies that they have the same level of responsibility for the attack as a murderer, which is unlikely to be the case. Additionally, some types of dogs which would be classed as ‘dangerous’ are in fact not and simply suffer from stigma attached to their breed.

Should such dogs be covered by the legislation even though they are not known for their violent temperament?

Perhaps some clarity can be given to this by the decision in Briscoe v Shattock [1998] EWHC Admin 929, which held that ‘dangerous’ should be given its ordinary everyday meaning. It also states that a decision should be made as to whether a dog is dangerous by reference to its nature and disposition. Using this definition, dogs known for their kind temperament may not be legally defined as dangerous which would help rule out such situations where they do cause any injuries.

A sensible compromise was suggested by Mr Hanson in the Committee Debate. He said ‘I do not want those penalties to be administered; I want them to be a deterrent, so that people know that if a dog is out of control there are severe penalties that involve the loss of liberty’. However, for the new sentence to be an effective deterrent, it must be applied consistently in the courts. If it is not, there is a risk that owners will not use precautions such as muzzling and keeping the dog on a lead to prevent attacks occurring. This still leaves open the question as to whether the government should be introducing more preventive measures such as Dog Control Notices (DCNs).

Dog Control Notices

DCNs were introduced in Scotland in 2010. They allow local authorities to place restrictions on an out of control or dangerous dog. In the last two years, 233 DCNs were created, of which there has only been 33 breaches – one resulting in a prosecution. Introducing DCNs in England and Wales would allow local authorities to take action before someone is attacked. Therefore, DCNs would reduce the number of dog attacks as the authorities will be able to act earlier.

However, DCNs are not being introduced in England and Wales. Instead, the Home Secretary suggests that parts 1–4 of the Anti Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill provide for DCNs in substance but not in name. Parts 1–4 allow for orders to prevent certain behaviour for community protection. Therefore, these provisions should ensure preventive action can be taken against dangerous dogs before any attack occurs. Mrs Cooper, a Labour MP, warned in the Bill’s second reading on 10 June 2013, that although these DCN-like provisions will not stop every attack, they ‘could make it easier for earlier preventive action to be taken’ (column 81).

Overall, the reforms suggested in the Anti Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill are welcomed. They appear to strengthen the provisions in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and will make it easier for a prosecution to be brought. As well as widening protection for victims, Parts 1–4 of the Bill are expected to help prevent many attacks occurring in advance. The increase in the maximum sentence will also work as an effective deterrent if applied consistently, promoting the idea of responsible dog ownership. Under these proposals, fatal attacks will hopefully become a less common occurrence in the future.

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