It is said by some that it was in response to media pressure that the Government brought into force legislation to prohibit the ownership of certain dogs and also to make it a criminal offence to have a dog dangerously out of control and to cause injury whilst out of such control. The Dangerous Dogs Act has never entirely found favour with many and indeed part of the criticism was that it was rushed through in response to panic or media reaction rather than being fully and properly considered.
Up until the enactment of the Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991, the means of ensuring that an owner controlled his canine pet was under the Dogs Act 1871. Application would be made under that statute by way of civil complaint for an order for the control or destruction of a dog if that animal was considered dangerous. There were many drawbacks to that piece of legislation and, although not fallen into disuse, it had become less effective. It was hoped that the Dangerous Dogs Act would enable the courts to control what was perceived to be a growing problem and punish those who were less than responsible in respect of the behaviour of the animals in their possession.
In essence, the Act specifically controlled and prohibited ownership of certain types of dogs. It was made an offence, in respect of a list of controlled dogs which included such breeds as Pit Bull Terriers and Japanese Tosas, to possess the dog and to breed from it, to sell it, to exchange it, to give away the dog or indeed to have the animal in a public place without being muzzled and on a lead, or to abandon the dog.
In later sections of the same Act, and this was to affect all dogs regardless of breed, it was a criminal offence to allow a dog to be dangerously out of control in a public place. This would include any instance of injury or indeed fear that injury might occur. It was also made an offence, and the owner or person in charge of a dog could be prosecuted, if an incident occurred in a non-public place where the dog was not permitted to be.
By way of aside almost, the penalty for the dog was that destruction must be ordered where injury was caused, however minor that injury.
The Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997 was enacted to allow a discretion on sentencing and the dog need not be destroyed if the court was satisfied that the dog would not constitute a danger to public safety. The court could, as an alternative, impose a control order specifying the measures the owner must take to keep the dog under proper control. These could include muzzling, keeping the dog on a lead and neutering, if appropriate.
There is once again concern as to the irresponsible ownership of animals. Ministry of Justice figures show an increase in the number of people sentenced for dangerous dog offences between 2009 and 2010 from 855 to 1,192. Once again, therefore, the situation came under review. Faced with an increase in prosecutions of people under dangerous dogs legislation, it was decided that, rather than look again at the Dangerous Dogs Act, despite the many criticisms of that legislation, it may be more effective to publish sentencing guidelines detailing what the starting point should be for various offences under the legislation. Whilst this tactic is often used as a means of levelling any inconsistencies in sentencing throughout the country’s courts, it was perhaps in this instance also an efficient means of sending out the message to those who choose to own dogs. That message being – keep them under control, behave responsibly with regard to them or face harsher sentence.
The new sentencing guidelines apply to cases brought to both the Magistrates and the Crown Court. In respect of the Crown Court, where the most serious offences are committed, the guidelines range from a discharge up to 18 months imprisonment.
The sort of aggravating features that would merit the imposition of the higher sentence would be where there was greater harm, such as serious injury, a sustained or repeated attack or the victim was a child or someone who was particularly vulnerable. Further aggravating factors which would indicate higher culpability include racial/religious aggravation, hostility to someone based on sexual orientation or hostility towards the victim’s disability. Furthermore, the higher sentence could be handed down in circumstances such as failing to respond to warnings or concerns expressed, goading or allowing goading of a dog and using a dog as a weapon to intimidate a victim. Where the offence falls within that higher category, the range is a medium level community order to 18 months custody with a starting point being 6 months custody.
In respect of less serious scenarios, for example where no injury is caused or indeed the offence is simply owning a prohibited dog, lesser sentences are proposed.
In essence, the message is quite simply one to be responsible and keep dogs under control or else face the appropriate sanctions.