In England and Wales, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (referred to as “the Act”) sets out how people should look after animals. It places a duty of care on pet owners to provide for their animals’ basic needs, spells out the animal cruelty offences and sets out the penalties for breaching the law.
In relation to animal cruelty, the Act makes it a criminal offence to:
The maximum penalty available for animal cruelty in England and Wales is 6 months in jail for these offences, and/or an unlimited fine and/or a ban on keeping animals. In Scotland, under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, the maximum penalty is 1 year. In Northern Ireland, under the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, the maximum penalty is 5 years.
Although the Act appears to provide for a maximum prison sentence of 51 weeks, these are summary offences, dealt with in Magistrates’ Courts, whose sentencing powers are limited to 6 months. Legislation which would have allowed Magistrates’ Courts to impose a 51-week sentence has never been enacted. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee recommended in pre-legislative scrutiny that some offences should be made triable ‘either way’. This would enable the more serious cases to be tried at Crown Court where lengthier sentences could be imposed. This was not accepted by the Government of the day.
Furthermore, the Sentencing Council recommends a reduction in sentence of up to one-third if the offender pleads guilty at the first reasonable opportunity. The Sentencing Council is currently consulting on this guideline, although its proposal is to reinforce the one-third reduction principle. This would mean a maximum prison sentence of 4 months for offenders in the most serious cases of animal cruelty in England and Wales who plead guilty at the first Court hearing. Only 1 in 5 people believe that the maximum sentence is either appropriate or too high compared to almost two-thirds of the population (65%) who believe that the maximum penalty should be increased.
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 was rightly heralded as a landmark piece of legislation. It was seen internationally as cementing the nation’s reputation as a leading voice in animal welfare. Ten years on, how do England and Wales compare with the rest of the world?
The chart below shows the maximum custodial penalties provided for in law for animal cruelty in 100 jurisdictions around the world. These include:
The penalties shown are for the most serious cases of animal cruelty, such as intentionally torturing an animal, causing it serious injury or death15.
Of the 100 jurisdictions studied:
England and Wales’ position in this global picture is even more starkly presented in chart below which shows the maximum penalties in individual countries in Europe and the USA.
England and Wales is amongst the most lenient of the 100 jurisdictions, having the lowest maximum custodial penalty for the most serious cases. Scotland is slightly stronger at 1 year, but still does not compare favourably with many other places.
Proportionality in sentencing is a key principle of British justice – the sentence must fit the crime. This is ensured in 2 ways:
In relation to animal cruelty, Parliament has set the maximum custodial penalty of 6 months. Contrary to some suggestions, this is the role of Parliament and Parliament alone.
Sentencing guidelines recommend:
These guidelines were revised in 2017. The maximum sentence that can be imposed remains constrained by Parliamentary legislation at 6 months in its effort to ensure a proportionate sentencing framework across all offences.
With your help we can get parliament to change the law and help countless animals across England and Wales