Updated: Oct 19, 2019
Before we start…
I want you you follow this link to the Bradford Telegraph and read this story about two people who ran a puppy farm in the UK, that are the most recently prosecuted people in the UK under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (arguably the most advanced welfare legislation in the world).
If you are like myself and follow most animal related news you may be familiar with the atrocities committed, but may wish to follow the link as a refresher. Warnings however, as although I chose an article with no graphic imaging, the descriptive language can be quite upsetting to those not desensitised to animal suffering.
Introduction – Unjust prosecutions
Noel Sweeney has highlighted the issues with sentencing and prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (AWA). In a very recent article (2016), Sweeney describes two extreme cases of animal abuse, and the questionably lax consequences for their crimes against animals. In one case reported by the Bradford Telegraph on the 18th November 2016, John Wilcock and Bernadette Nunnery were both prosecuted for multiple accounts of causing unnecessary suffering under the AWA. While this initially appears to be a triumph for anti-cruelty advocates, many outcries from the public suggested that justice was not served.
The Telegraph reports that Wilcock pled guilty to five accounts of cruelty for the suffering of puppies under his care, and Nunnery pled not guilty for 6 accounts but then was found guilty. The district judge Marie Mallon was quoted as saying “These were very serious offences, with the dead puppies being the most serious element of this case.” Without including the details of the case, Mallon’s quote directly highlights the severity of the issue and that the dead puppies were only one part of a larger case of animal cruelty and neglect at the hands of the prosecuted.
Sweeney states that Wilcock only received a 20 week prison sentence and an 18 month ban of keeping animals, with Nunnery receiving the exact same sentence despite committing a worse crime (6 accounts over 5). Sweeney, an experienced and high profile practicing barrister, states that sentencing should be harsher on Nunnery purely for the fact that she was found guilty when she pled not guilty. One can easily sympathise with the public outcry with the outcomes of the trial, given that the maximum sentence is six months imprisonment, and a £20,000 fine (Sweeney, 2016).
Weaknesses in welfare legislation
Sweeney uses this example to argue a point that the prosecution under the AWA is not harsh enough. This view is backed up by the Centre for Animals and Social Justice (CASJ), who in 2014 critically evaluated the act, stating that it remains ‘weak ‘ and has a highly inconsistent impact (When looking at prosecution cases). Some of the key points they make state that the term ‘unnecessary suffering’ is far too ambiguous, and can be interpreted too openly. Some other notable points included are that the (reported) 4.1 million animals used for laboratory experiments are not protected, as well as providing no protection for wild animals and fish involved in fishing activities.
While the CASJ article makes valid points against the effectiveness of the AWA, it fails to also evaluate the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, in which the majority of wild birds, nests and some wild animals are protected. It also fails to account for the strict regulation and multiple licences, professional management and harsh prosecution powers of the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 which aims to protect laboratory animals in the UK, and have different sentencing structures to the AWA. While it can be argued that the sentencing and prosecution processes outlined in the AWA do not have enough impact, it cannot be looked at as a single means to prosecute for all animal suffering cases.
Changes in animal welfare legislation
If the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was to be looked at as a single entity of animal protection in the UK, can it stand up as a poignant statute against animal cruelty, or is it as described above, lacking in effectiveness for serving punishment and deterring potential criminals?
The AWA however, has introduced more flexibility in sentencing worst offenders, increasing fines and outlining other penalties. Unfortunately, the Vet times reported in 2010, this also means additional penalties such as offering community service has meant prison sentences and other deprivation methods of punishment are diluted, making the prosecution have less of an impact on the guilty parties and as a deterrent.
The AWA had consolidated 20 pieces of animal legislation, including the Protection of Animals Act 1934 and the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 as outlined in schedule 4 of the AWA legislative document. The AWA now boasts more powers including an increase from £100 and up to three months in prison to a maximum jail term of 51 weeks and up to a £20,000 (as well as lifetime bans on keeping animals).
An issue that is the prison term, however, lies with the court system in the UK. As discussed in an article from the UK Criminal Law Blog (2015), Harris describes how it is very rare for an animal cruelty case to be taken from Magistrates to Crown court, and the maximum sentence that can be awarded in Magistrates court is 6 months, which makes the (approx.) 11-month maximum sentence given in the AWA redundant.
A review led by the Horse Trust in 2010 states that the Animal Welfare Act is a significant improvement for safeguarding equine welfare. But it also goes on to say some changes are required for the act to be fully effective. The Trust responds to the Act with improvement suggestions including stronger powers to deal with non-compliant pet owners, a change in sentencing guidelines and for allowing deprivation and disqualification orders to be prioritised above other penalties, as this will have the largest impact of preventing poor welfare by individuals.
Looking beyond single laws
Despite the issues that are continue to be raised with AWA sentencing and prosecution, Brown presented a key issue to the conference on the status of animals in common law jurisdictions. She explained that regardless of the strength of animal law and legislation, under common law, animals remain to be seen as property, and this has a negative consequence for the welfare of animals. She argues that until animals are recognised as more than ‘things’, legislation will fail to hold a real impact om protection rights.
The sentencing and prosecution issues discussed show that animal welfare law still has a long way to go and needs significant evaluation and discussion to establish how it can move forward to make a bigger impact on animal welfare, by removing the opportunity of offenders to re-offend, but also to deter others from committing similar offences. To look at the AWA alone, however, would be a mistake. To give animals a higher recognition in the eyes of the law would be a good starting point, to allow harsher sentencing in high courts, as well as expanding the definitions of protected animals. It would also be beneficial to recognise and cross referencing criminal activity to over legislative laws including the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.
Animal Welfare Act 2006. Available online: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/45/crossheading/introductory [Accessed 16/12/2016]
BBC (2005) Pet abuse law shake-up unveiled. Available online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4339406.stm [Accessed 16/12/2016]
Brown, H. (2016) The Links between ethics and law – the example of animals. Conference in Limoges, 21st November 2016. Article available online: http://alaw.org.uk/news/ [Accessed 16/12/2016]
CASJ (Centre for Animal and Social Justice) (2014) Evaluating the UK Government’s Animal Welfare Stance. Available online: http://www.casj.org.uk/news/govt-position-animal-welfare/ [Accessed 16/12/2016]
Harris, L/ (2015) 4 Months for killing a dog – are sentences for animal cruelty too short? UK Criminal Law Blog. Available online: http://ukcriminallawblog.com/4-months-for-killing-a-dog-are-sentences-for-animal-cruelty-too-short/ [Accessed 16/12/2016]
Sweeney, N. (2016) Sentencing: Nailing the Truth about Animal Abused Revisited. Available online: http://www.noelsweeney.co.uk/sentencing-nailing-the-truth-about-animal-abuse-revisited/ [Accessed 16/12/2016]
The Bradford Telegraph (2016) John Wilcock and Bernadette Nunney avoid jail over animal cruelty at puppy farm in Tyersal. Published online on 18th November 2016. Available at: http://www.thetelegraphandargus.co.uk/news/14914344.Animal_cruelty_pair_avoid_jail_over_dead_puppies_found_at_farm/ [Accessed 16/12/2016]
The Horse Trust (2010) Animal Welfare Act is ‘A Significant Improvement’ for safeguarding equine welfare. Available online: http://www.horsetrust.org.uk/news/current/news-2010/animal-welfare-act-is-a-significant-improvement–for-safeguarding-equine-welfare/ [Accessed 16/12/2016]
Vet Times (2010) Animal Welfare Act significantly improved, but still not perfect. Available online: https://www.vettimes.co.uk/news/animal-welfare-act-significantly-improved-but-still-not-perfect/ [Accessed 16/12/2016]