News & Insights

A dog in a cage

Laurence Harris looks at the new guidelines in relation to sentences for animal welfare offences


On 10 May 2023 the Sentencing Council published new sentencing guidelines on the following offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (‘the 2006 Act’): causing unnecessary suffering (s.4), mutilation (s.5), docking of dogs’ tails (s.6), administration of poisons (s.7), and fighting (s.8). This new guidance builds on the interim guidance for the same offences that followed the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021, which amended the status of these same offences from summary only to either way, and which substantially increased the maximum sentence to 5 years’ imprisonment. The Sentencing Council has also published specific guidelines for the offence of failure to ensure animal welfare, contrary to s.9 of the 2006 Act, which remains a summary only offence.

These guidelines come into force on 1 July 2023 and have been welcomed by the RSPCA. The fruits of the consultation process are plain to see in the extensive list of offence-specific factors for sentencing tribunals to take into consideration, tailored to the wide range of contexts in which animal cruelty offences are committed. Notable inclusions in the culpability assessment include ‘sadistic behaviour’, ‘use of technology, including circulating details, photographs, videos etc of the offence on social media’, ‘ill treatment in a commercial context’, ‘well-intentioned but incompetent care‘, and ‘momentary or brief lapse in judgement’. Equally notable for the harm assessment: cases of tail docking, ear cropping, and similar forms of mutilation are specifically listed as category 2 harm.

These new guidelines provide greater clarity in a previously opaque area of sentencing. Not only will the guidance assist defence practitioners in providing accurate advice on sentence, but sentencing tribunals – and especially lay magistrates, who will still retain jurisdiction in a significant number of cases – will find these guidelines an immensely practical resource. The guidelines specifically warn against risk of double counting, they very clearly signpost the non-applicability of certain aggravating features for certain of the offences, and they link conveniently to the Sentencing Council guidance on ancillary orders. Practitioners should be reminded that this ancillary order guidance leaves some detail to be desired and lay magistrates in particular may require additional assistance when considering whether, and if so, on what terms, orders should be granted.

Finally, these guidelines may also give Local Authorities, private prosecutors (including the RSPCA), and Police Services further detail for effective pre-charge intervention with potential offenders. This is particularly significant for the s.9 offence, where national or local authority inspectors can issue s.10 ‘improvement notices’ when they are of the opinion that s.9 requirements are not being met. This new sentencing guidance could play a meaningful role in this process that avoids unnecessary prosecutions whilst still enforcing fundamental animal welfare.


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