Major Shake-up of Sentencing for People Convicted of Dangerous Dog Offences

The Sentencing Council has published new guidelines today for how courts should sentence people convicted of dangerous dog offences.The information provided by the Sentencing Council is outlined below.

The guidelines cover offences where a dog injures or kills a person, where it injures an assistance dog or where someone possesses a banned breed of dog. The Council has introduced these guidelines following changes to dangerous dog offences legislation in 2014 which extended the law to cover attacks that occur on private property and introduced a new offence to cover attacks on assistance dogs.

The legislation also made very significant increases to some maximum sentences. For example, the maximum sentence for an offence where someone is killed increased from two to 14 years and for where someone is injured from two to five The new guidelines aim to provide clear guidance to sentencers, taking into account the changes to the law and ensuring a consistent approach to sentencing for these offences.

The increases in maximum sentences set by law have been reflected in the guidelines, so that they permit a much wider range of sentence lengths than the previous guidelines. Sentencing levels are likely to be higher than in the past, but magistrates and judges will still have to pass appropriate and proportionate sentences according to the seriousness of the offence.

The guidelines are designed to deal with a wide range of offending behaviour. For example, the guideline for a dog dangerously out of control where a person is injured covers situations which range from a nip causing a minor injury to a very serious attack causing life-changing injuries. The blameworthiness of the offender can also vary greatly between cases, with some owners deliberately training dogs to be dangerous, while other offences may involve a momentary lapse of control over a dog by an otherwise responsible owner.

Consistent with the changes to the law, the guidelines apply to offences that occur on private property in addition to public places. This covers situations for example where a guest is injured by a dog in someone’s home or a postal worker is attacked on their round in someone’s front garden. There is a new guideline to cover the offence introduced in 2014 of an attack on an assistance dog.

Assistance dogs may be those trained to guide someone with a visual impairment or help someone with a hearing impairment or other disability, and the guideline takes into account both the harm suffered by the dog and the potential impact on the assisted person of being without their trained dog for any period.

In addition to setting out appropriate sentence ranges for these offences, the guidelines emphasise to sentencers that they should consider whether an offender should be banned from keeping dogs, have dogs taken away from them, and be ordered to pay compensation to the victim.

The introduction of the guidelines follows a public consultation on the Council’s proposals. The consultation asked for views on aspects such as the factors that should be taken into account when assessing the seriousness of an offence, how the guideline should be structured and the sentence levels that should be set out.

During the consultation period, the Council also hosted a number of consultation meetings with sentencers and groups with an interest in this area. The guidelines take into account feedback received during the consultation. For example, a number of changes were made to the factors included for assessing the culpability of offenders, particularly in the guideline for the offence of attacks on assistance dogs. These reflected comments received that the factors should be more tailored to this specific offence and so the Council added a new high culpability factor for circumstances where assistance dogs and their owners have been specifically targeted due to the person’s disability (or presumed disability).

District Judge Richard Williams, a member of the Sentencing Council said: “We know that the majority of dog owners are responsible and ensure their pets do not put anyone in danger, but there are some irresponsible owners whose dogs do put people at risk of injury and in some cases even death.

“The new guidelines will help ensure a consistent and proportionate approach to sentencing following the significant changes to the law. They allow for a broad range of sentences to be given, depending on the seriousness of each offence, and encourage courts where appropriate to use their other powers to ban people from keeping dogs or to order them to pay compensation to victims.”

James White, Senior Campaigns Manager at the charity Guide Dogs said: “Sadly, every year we hear of more than 100 guide dogs being attacked by other dogs. Attacks on guide dogs are extremely distressing for their owners. Not only is the attack itself traumatic, but if the dog has to stop working, then their owner may find it impossible to leave home on their own. We welcome the publication of today’s dangerous dog sentencing guidelines, which will assist courts in sentencing these difficult and distressing cases appropriately.”

Malcolm Richardson, National Chairman of the Magistrates Association said: “The impact on the victim of this kind of offence can be severe. The sheer range of seriousness in dangerous dog cases is very considerable, so we are therefore glad that the Sentencing Guidelines now reflect that. “Because no two cases are the same, magistrates appreciate having as flexible a range of guidelines at their disposal as possible. It helps them to do their job of steering justice fairly.”

Following its publication today, the guideline will come into force in courts in England and Wales from July 2016.

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