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England and Wales: Owners of Dogs That Kill Could Face Life Imprisonment

(Aug. 8, 2013) In the face of an increase in the number of dog bites that cause serious injuries or fatalities in England and Wales, the British government is currently proposing the introduction of new legal provisions to stiffen the penalties against owners whose dogs cause such injuries and to extend the scope of the law to cover even private property where the animals are permitted. In 2011-2012 there were over 210,000 reported dog bite incidents, with more than 6,500 victims requiring hospital treatment, up from 4,600 in 2007-2008. Since 2005, 16 people have died after being attacked by dogs. (Killer Dogs’ Owners in England and Wales Could Face Life in Prison, BBC NEWS (Aug. 6, 2013) [citing Hospital Episode Statistics, Health and Social Care Information Centre]; see also Maximum Prison Sentences for Dog Attacks Causing Injury or Death, Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs website (last visited Aug. 6, 2013) & Action to Clamp Down on Dangerous Dogs, GOV.UK (updated Aug. 6, 2013).)

The current provisions are contained in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and provide for penalties for owners of dogs that attack people, but these only apply if the dog is in a public place or on private property where the dog is not permitted. The current maximum sentence for the owner of a dog that is out of control and kills or injures someone is two years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. (Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, c. 65, section 3, LEGISLATION.GOV.UK (last visited Aug. 6, 2013).)

In light of concerns that the penalties for the offense of injuring or killing a person with an out-of-control dog are relatively low and reportedly inconsistently applied, the government is consulting on what an effective change in the law would be. The current proposals provide for an increase in the penalty for owners of dogs who kill or injure people and/or assistance dogs. The reason for the inclusion of assistance dogs is the high cost of replacing such animals. (Killer Dogs’ Owners in England and Wales Could Face Life in Prison, supra.)

One of the proposals is to increase the penalty for violation of the law from two years to life imprisonment, although it anticipates that the court will be able to consider any aggravating or mitigating circumstances and the maximum penalty will only be used in the most serious of cases. Government debates on the draft legislation indicate that officials see this punishment as disproportionate to the offense, particularly given that the maximum sentence for causing death by careless driving is five years, and for causing death by dangerous driving is 14 years. The amendment would also allow the prosecution of owners regardless of whether the attack occurred on private property where the dog is permitted, such as the owner’s house. (Public Bill Committee, Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill (July 4, 2013), 2013-14, c. 338, United Kingdom Parliament website.)

The proposed new provisions are currently included in clauses 98 and 99 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. (Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill 2013/14, H.C. Bill 93, United Kingdom Parliament website (last visited Aug. 6, 2013).)