Two recent cases have brought attention to the law on animal welfare. As is so often the case, the facts may be somewhat novel but the underlying points are of broader interest.

An unusual case

A woman from Birmingham was sentenced on 23 January after being found guilty of four animal welfare offences. Louise Lawford ran her own business, (including dog walking) in the city but gained notoriety after five of the animals in her care went missing whilst on a walk in June 2019.

It’s important to note that the case brought before Birmingham Magistrates’ Court didn’t relate to the disappearance of the dogs. That will be dealt with separately in a civil case brought by their owners.

In this case, Ms Lawford accepted that that she had breached several of the conditions attached to her business licence, including limits on the number of dogs she boarded at any one time and boarding dogs from different homes. She also admitted failing to seek treatment for a dog which suffered from a skin condition.

Ms Lawford must pay a fine of £800.00, costs of £2,616 and a victim surcharge of £80.00. She is also prohibited from owning dogs for five years.

The repercussions, aside from the publicity surrounding the case, are clear. Ms Lawford has lost her livelihood and now has a criminal record. The importance of complying with licence conditions, and with animal welfare law in general, is amply illustrated.

If things had been different, what else could Ms Lawford have been charged with? Theft is the obvious one that comes to mind; perhaps animal cruelty offences as well. Ms Lawford has maintained that the dogs were lost in woods; though the prosecution did not accept this account, they felt that they could not prove otherwise.

A case in West Yorkshire

On 9 January, Keighley man Gary Bell was convicted of animal cruelty offences and given a four month custodial sentence.

After the RSPCA became aware of an issue with Mr Bell’s American Bulldog, Smiler, officers visited Mr Bell’s home, where they found Smiler in a desperate condition.It was established that Mr Bell had inflicted trauma upon Smiler that had led to a number of injuries, including two large wounds and bruising to her head. It was also found that he had applied cleaning fluid to Smiler’s head and eyes, and had not sought help from a vet. This led to his conviction for causing unnecessary suffering.

As well as a term of imprisonment, Mr Bell was ordered to pay a victim surcharge of £121.00. He had originally been scheduled to appear in court in early January but after he failed to appear, a warrant was issued and he was arrested.

Why were the sentences different?

Sentencing will always differ between cases essentially on the basis that no two cases are the same, and the approach to sentence will take that into account. Two cases which seem on the face of it to be very similar may well have key distinctions that are only known to those directly involved with the case.

That being said, there are Sentencing Guidelines which a court must adopt. They are an important framework which have to be referred to when the court works out what the sentence should be.

There is a specific Guideline which covers animal welfare offences, but there are changes on the horizon. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill was published in Parliament on 5 February. If passed, it would increase the current maximum sentence for animal welfare offences from six months’ imprisonment to five years.

This would be a significant development; in increasing the maximum sentence so substantially, it would also mean that a proportion of cases would make their way to the Crown Court. At the moment, cases are only ever heard in a Magistrates’ Court.

We will of course look at the Bill and what its impact could be as it progresses. If you have any queries in the meantime, or are facing prosecution in relation to animal welfare offences, please do get in touch on 0113 284 5000.

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