Dog Law Overview
They say that Britain is a nation of dog lovers and really the facts speak for themselves. There are now an estimated 8.5 million dogs in Britain, an increase from an estimated 5 million in 1970. From the smallest Chihuahua to a Great Dane, dogs have become part and parcel of British family life.
As dog ownership has increased it should follow that the law, both civil and criminal, would evolve to reflect the increasing importance of dogs in our everyday life. Would it be too much to ask for common sense legislation to have developed over the years governing our interaction with our canine friends? Regrettably, the law, both criminal and civil, is in a mess. A right dog’s breakfast.
In criminal law, the Dog Control Bill is currently going through Parliament. The Bill is set to replace the Dogs Act 1871, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Dangerous Dogs Act 1997. It will introduce tougher laws to tackle the threat of dangerous dogs following the failure of previous legislation to do so.
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, in particular, is a notoriously poor piece of legislation. Rushed through Parliament following a number of high profile dog bite related deaths. The Act introduced penalties such as destruction of various breeds of dog with penalties for owners, including being disqualified from owning a dog for a period to be specified by the court.
The Act has failed to stop the increase in dangerous dog breeds and has not prevented the number of bites by dogs, currently estimated to be around 200,000 each year.
The Dog Control Bill is set to make it a crime to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control on private property. The previous Acts had only covered attacks by dogs in public places.
The Bill has been criticised for giving the Police more power to deal with responsible dog owners rather than introducing Dog Control Notices which would give local authorities powers to tackle all aspects of dog related crime such as illegal breeding and the ownership and training of so called “status” dogs. These Dog Control Notices were introduced in Scotland in 2011 and have been hailed a success in many quarters.
Without Dog Control Notices enforcement officers will remain powerless to tackle irresponsible owners and antisocial behaviour with dogs before attacks take place.
In civil law the position is not any better.
The question of civil liability for injury caused by dogs is a “hotchpotch” of various aspects of the common law, the Animals Act 1971 and numerous statutory duties.
The Animals Act 1971 was brought in to simplify the duties owed by owners of animals to the rest of the public. It was meant to create a fairer, more codified system. Far from bringing clarity, it has only served to muddy the waters. The Act is confused, poorly drafted and is regularly misinterpreted by lawyers, including senior members of the judiciary.
The Act differentiates between animals, including dogs, which belong to a dangerous species and other “non-dangerous” animals. In dog bites involving dangerous species the owner will be strictly liable for damage caused by that dog.
If the animal does not belong to a dangerous species then liability depends on a number of criteria, including whether at the time of the bite the animal was displaying characteristics not normally found in animals of that species or not normally found except at particular times or in particular circumstances. The owner would also need to have knowledge of those characteristics.
There are also potential claims in common law for negligence on the part of a dog owner and also various statutory duties that may apply, including workplace regulations if a dog bite took place at work.
This all means that advising as to whether a dog owner can be sued following a dog bite is extremely difficult.
In both criminal and civil law there has, unfortunately, been a piecemeal approach to legislation which has resulted in confusion and uncertainty.
It is hoped that as the dog population increases that both criminal and civil legislation will be introduced so that we have the dog bite law that, as a nation of dog lovers, we deserve.