Legal Advice
Dog Law

Changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act

dog-fenceThe Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has been widely criticised by animal welfare groups [1] and legal commentators for its inadequate appreciation of what a dangerous dog is and how a dog becomes dangerous. It has been claimed that the Act was introduced as a quick fix in response to media and public pressure following a number of serious dog attacks and therefore distorted the reality of dangerous breeds and uncontrolled dogs. The Act was founded on breed-specific legislation which banned ownership of particular types of dog specified in Section 1. The types prohibited are the Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, and the Fila Brasileiro.

Breed specific legislation has significant flaws. Firstly, certain types of dog are branded dangerous just because of their appearance and not because of their potentially dangerous behaviour. Secondly, it fails to take account of irresponsible owners and neglect which can result in any breed of dog becoming aggressive and dangerous. The tragic case of Lexi Branson [2] who was killed in 2013 by her family pet dog highlighted the issue of breeds of dog which are not considered dangerous becoming aggressive and attacking. The dog had been rescued by the family, having been rehomed only 2 months prior to the attack which raises suspicion of potential neglect by previous owners or early on in the dog’s life. Finally, there is difficultly in defining a pit bull type dog given irresponsible breeding and problems  investigating a dog’s pedigree. The 1991 Act has failed to eliminate these so-called dangerous breeds indeed it has given rise to ‘status dogs’ [3] making dangerous dogs desirable and has been linked to antisocial behaviour.

The 2010 consultation by Defra [4] found that of 3,215 respondents, 63% considered that the Dangerous Dog Act should be extended to cover all places including private property and of 2,850 respondents, 88% thought that breed specific legislation was ineffective in protecting the public from dangerous dogs. The results of consultations and mounting pressure from animal welfare organisations for change cumulated in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill which received Royal Assent on 13 March 2014.

The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has made several amendments to the legislation on dangerous dogs.

The powers of the police and other enforcement bodies have been extended to allow a criminal offence to cover where any breed or type of dog is dangerously out of control on private property and this enables the police to take appropriate action, instigating proceedings against the owner or controller of the dangerous dog. The main responsibility of the police remains that they are to assist in identifying dogs that are alleged to be of a prohibited breed/type and seizing them.

The 2014 Act has increased the maximum sentences for those owners or controllers of the dangerous dog who are charged with aggravated offences.  Under section 3(1) of the 1991 Act, if a person is found guilty of an aggravated offence in the Crown Court, they may be sentenced to a maximum of two years’ imprisonment, receive a fine, or both.

Section 106 of the 2014 Act has extended the statutory maximum to 14 years if a person dies as a result of being injured, 5 years in any other case where a person is injured and 3 years in any case where an assistance dog is injured, regardless of whether or not it dies. These changes reflect the findings of the 2013 consultation by Defra [5] into possible increases to the maximum sentences for aggravated offences which found that 83% of respondents favoured an increase in penalties in the case of injury to a person or an assistance dog.

The most popular statutory maximum option for fatal dog attacks was life imprisonment, favoured by  47% of respondents. However the 2014 Act only raised the maximum to 14 years which was explained by the Government as a decision based on the proportionality of the offence and the comparison to the sentence of causing death by dangerous driving. Murder or manslaughter charges for where a fatal attack is a direct result of a person deliberately setting their dog on the victim would still be available, potentially attracting life imprisonment.

With fatal dog attacks attracting considerable media interest over the last 12 months, attention has been drawn to the legal proceedings that have followed the attack and the adequacy of laws. For example, in October 2013, the owner of four dogs who mauled to death a 14 year old girl was given a 16 week suspended jail sentence [6] which many considered a  low sentence given the courts’ new powers.

As well as imposing tougher penalties on dog owners, the new Act also invites the court to consider a wide range of circumstances when deciding whether a dog would constitute a danger to public safety. Most importantly for dog owners, or anyone in charge of a dog, consideration must be given of whether the person is a fit and proper person to be in charge of the dog [7]. This change aims to address the problem of irresponsible owners and to demonstrate that regardless of breed, neglect and mistreatment will cause any dog to become dangerous. The Act also gives a wide discretion to the court to consider any other circumstances that may be relevant to whether a dog is a danger to public safety. Therefore, virtually any negative aspect of the dog, its owner, or environment can be relevant to a decision making it harder to predict whether a dog will be assessed as dangerous.

The new Act has been extended to include prosecution for dog owners if their dog attacks a person in the home, or on their private property. This change in the law has been extended to protect those who temporarily enter private property, such as healthcare or postal workers and where private property is shared.

However, the Act provides an exception in “householder” cases. This is where a dog is dangerously out of control while in a house or part of a house or forces accommodation and the victim of the attack is a trespasser or is believed to be a trespasser. In such a case, trespassers will have no protection if they are attacked by a householder’s dog.

Under the new Act, assistance dogs, for example blind dogs, are explicitly protected as victims of attacks. Therefore an owner or person in charge of a dangerous dog that attacks an assistance dog can be prosecuted. Lord de Mauley recognised this change as essential, stating that,

“In the past, assistance dogs have been harmed so badly by other dogs that their owners have been robbed of their independence and quality of life.”

The 2014 amendments have gone a long way to remedy the shortfalls of the 1991 Act. However the “householder” exception has been criticised as a perverse incentive for dangerous dogs to be kept in domestic residences to be used as a weapon against suspected trespassers and undermines the Government’s policy of reducing the threat from dangerous dogs  [8]. Moreover, there will be disappointment from animal welfare organisations who called for legislation to extend to attacks on all protected animals and not just assistance dogs  [9]. Finally,  it can be argued that this legislation has failed to focus on the preventative approach of dog attacks by failing to introduce a system to target people who fail to take responsibility for their potentially dangerous dog before they attack, or fail to take account of the specific needs of those dogs  [10].