‘The approach of the Animal Welfare Act is to place a legal burden on the person responsible to care for the welfare of the animal – to protect animals from their natural predators, humans’.Noel Sweeney, Barrister and author.
Most animal keepers may feel that their animals do not require protection from them, but unfortunately this is often what is exactly required, particularly when owners have no idea what their legal and moral responsibilities are. In a recent survey of pet owners by the PDSA(2016) 38% had not heard of the Animal Welfare Act and only 35% of pet owners surveyed were aware of the Five Needs or that they were incorporated into law, while 25% had not done any prior research into the costs and care of the pet they had obtained.
This is because we all think we know best when it comes to looking after animals despite “best practice” and believe we have a God given right to own one despite our circumstances. If this is so how can they know they are doing their best to provide for them. It is for these reasons we needed tougher regulation.
Animal Welfare Act
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 came into force on 6 April 2007 and replaced the extremely outdated Protection of Animals Act 1911. Even though the UK believes it is the bastion of animal loving and successive governments have boasted that they are committed to improving animal welfare standards, it took 96 years for us to update our laws and we still haven’t got it right. The two main offences are causing unnecessary suffering covered in Section 4 and failing to provide for an animal’s needs in Section 9 which most prosecutions are taken under. Suffering can be mental or physical or both.
Sections 9 to 12 of the Act are titled: ‘Promotion of Welfare’ which imposes a legal “duty of care” on the owner to provide care and conditions suitable for the species. The person responsible for the animal commits an offence if they cause it “unnecessary physical or mental suffering” and failing to meet their “needs”. The Act places the legal burden on the actual person in charge and basically aims to protect the animals from us doing them harm or abusing them and this is what many owners are unaware of.
The details you need to understand.
What animals are protected?
The Act covers all animals classified as ‘protected’ which is any animal commonly domesticated in the UK, under the control of man and not living in the wild state which we refer to as companion animals and farm animals. Therefore there is little protection for the poor wildlife. There are provisions to cover marine life such as lobsters and fish if it is ever proved and accepted by science that they can feel pain and suffer and so only vertebrates (animals with backbones) are protected now.
Scientific experiments and fishing activities as always are exempted, but it does single out certain cruel practices such as animal fighting, tail docking and other other mutilation, torture and poisoning.
Who has the power to enforce it?
Enforcement is shared between the Police, Local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural affairs (DEFRA), but the law of the land in the UK allows anyone to undertake a private prosecution and this how the RSPCA can prosecute. Although they have no legal powers, their inspectors can gather evidence as private citizens as long as they do not break the law in any way and the Society can take out a private prosecution.
What are the penalties?
The maximum penalty is 5 years in prison, and or a £20,000 fine and disqualification orders banning people from owning, looking after, dealing or transporting animls can be issued for varying periods or life.
Why are the RSPCA allowed to enforce it?
Unbelievably when the law was enacted no agency was designated to enforce it and since then the Police and local authorities have not felt they have a “statutory duty” to get involved particularly as it is an expensive and specialist niche area of law enforcement. So luckily the RSPCA has continued to step into the breach and take over 90% of all the prosecutions for cruelty. Without them very little investigation or prosecution would take place. But not everyone sees it that way. Interestingly, the RSPCA is the only organisation that collects statistics on cruelty so without them we would not even know the level of cruelty in the country. The RSPCA take private prosecutions which any citizen has a right to do under most laws.
All animal owners need to take note and understand this bit:
The whole of the Animal Welfare Act basically revolves around the wording below which stipulates that a person commits an offence if that person:
The most important change in the law that affects all animal owners or keepers is that you are now legally responsible for looking after them to a certain standard and failing to do so is an offence. The owner of the animal is always deemed as being “responsible” for it in every eventuality even if in the care of a child and even technically responsible if given to a family member or friend to look after for a short period. There is little or no excuse to neglect an animal or allow it to suffer or get injured. Few owners fully comprehend this change in the law and how it affects them or have knowledge of the legally binding standards. It is not good enough anymore to claim ignorance or take on an animal on a whim and not be able to support it.
“an act of his, or a failure of his to act, causes an animal to suffer”
You can also cause an offence if you allow someone else to cause the suffering without trying to stop it. You commit an offence if you intentionally cause an animal to suffer unnecessarily or fail to stop the suffering of an animal if it is judged you should have realised it was suffering i.e. if it is obviously ill or injured you should take it to the vet for treatment.
“he knew, or ought reasonably to have known, that the act, or failure to act, would have that effect or be likely to do so, the suffering is unnecessary.”
What is best practice?
Best practice are methods for caring for animals such as the best food, living conditions, handling ,etc which have proven over a long period of time to be the best way of keeping them healthy and happy.
What are the codes of practice linked to the law?
The guidelines for looking after your animals are published by the Government and used as a basis by most agencies as the minimum requirements. The are surprisingly extensive and explicit which many pet owners fail to comply with. The codes can be downloaded below:
What is “Duty of Care”.
This is a legal obligation placed on the owner to care for an animal and failure to do so can result in prosecution or being disqualified from keeping one. Under the old law an animal had to have already suffered or been caused injury before anyone could come to its aid, but under this new Act action can be taken to stop it from undergoing suffering in the future if the conditions and situation it is being kept in are likely to cause this. In reality this is not that easy.
What is unnecessary physical and mental suffering?
Unfortunately this is where the law falters somewhat as no court has been able to define for certain what ‘unnecessary suffering’ constitutes, or for that matter, how to precisely define mental and physical suffering, which allows defence lawyers the leeway to appeal. Basically if a vet or animal behaviourist stands up in court and says an animal has suffered and for how long this is good enough for a prosecution. Obviously common sense is a factor as in the case of an animal that has been starved to death there is little doubt it has suffered.
What are the “needs”?
- the need for a suitable environment
- the need for a suitable diet
- the need to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
- any need to be housed with or apart from other animals, and
- the need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
It is all very basic stuff but unfortunately many owners still manage to neglect and abuse their pets by failing to comply even with these basic needs.
To Sum Up
The old Protection of Animals Act (POA) was primarily concerned with cruelty, but the new law doesn’t contain the words cruelty or cruel at all which many people might find strange. This is because it is designed to promote good welfare and try to educate people rather than prosecute them. For this reason officers who enforce it will usually try offering advice by:
- persuading or educating the person responsible for the animal to look after the animal properly
- giving them a care notice – stating what the person is failing to do and giving them a period of time to take action to improve the animal’s welfare. These are legally binding and if as an owner you do not comply with the order there powers to remove the animal. If as an owner you do not abide by the care notice you run the risk of being charged with an offence and prosecuted.
- as a last resort start criminal prosecution proceedings by reporting the case. Courts can also issue disqualification orders which stop you from owning, transporting or working with animals for a period of time or for life in serious cases.
The most important change in the law that affects all animal owners or keepers is that you are now legally responsible for looking after them to a certain standard and failing to do so is an offence. There is little or no excuse not to care for the animal adequately or to neglect it and allow it to suffer or get injured. Few owners realise this fact or have knowledge of the legally binding standards that any prosecution is based on. It is not good enough anymore to take on an animal on a whim and not be able to support it.