Sentencing Council publishes new proposals for sentencing people convicted of dangerous dog offences

Today, the Sentencing Council has published proposals for how courts should sentence people convicted of dangerous dog offences. The proposals follow changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which came into force last year. These made very substantial increases to the maximum sentences for these offences, extended the law to cover offences on private property and introduced a new offence to cover attacks on assistance dogs.

New sentencing guidelines are therefore being produced to reflect the changes to legislation and to provide updated guidance for judges and magistrates to use in sentencing these cases, which can include those of the utmost seriousness involving a fatality.

Sentence levels in the proposed guidelines have increased in line with changes to the law and therefore allow a wider range of sentence lengths than are possible under existing guidelines. The law has increased maximum sentences for offences where someone is killed by a dangerous dog from two years to 14 years and so proposed sentencing ranges, which go up to this new maximum can accommodate more effectively the variety of offenders who come before the courts. At the top end, they could involve someone who has bred or trained a dog to be aggressive and uses the dog as a weapon or to intimidate people, whose dog carries out a fatal attack.

However, the guideline sentencing ranges also cover incidents where the dog owner was much less culpable. This could include someone who has been a responsible dog owner and taken safety measures but an unforeseen incident happens where their dog escapes from their house and attacks someone in the street and despite their efforts to restrain the dog, the victim dies.

The proposed guidelines also reflect the increase in the legal maximum from two to five years where a person is injured by a dangerous dog with sentencing ranges that go up to four years, allowing sentencers to go outside the guideline in exceptional cases.

The law also introduced a new offence of a dog being dangerously out of control and killing or injuring an assistance dog, which could be those trained to guide someone with a visual impairment, or assist someone with a hearing impairment or other disability. A guideline has therefore been produced to cover this offence, accommodating the varying levels of harm and culpability that can arise. It takes into account both the harm to the assistance dog and the potential impact on the assisted person of being without their trained dog for any period of time.

In line with the extension of the law, the draft guidelines now cover incidents which happen on private property as well as in public spaces. This means they will apply to incidents such as when a postal worker on a delivery round is attacked by a dog in someone’s front garden or when a guest at someone’s house is injured.

As well as setting out appropriate sentence ranges for these offences, the guidelines aim to make sure sentencers use the full range of their powers, for example awarding compensation to victims or banning irresponsible owners who put the public at risk from keeping dogs.

The Council is seeking the views of as many people as possible interested in the sentencing of dangerous dog offences. It is particularly interested in views about how to assess the seriousness of offences, which factors should influence a sentence, the structure of the guidelines and the sentence ranges and levels.

The consultation closes on 9 June 2015. It is open to everyone, both criminal justice professionals and members of the public. People can respond by visiting sentencingcouncil.org.uk, responding either to the full consultation, or by filling out a simpler online questionnaire.

Judge Julian Goose, member of the Sentencing Council, said:

“Most dog owners are responsible, care for their pets properly and keep them under control but some irresponsible owners put others at risk of injury or death and we want to ensure that the courts have the guidance needed to help them sentence offenders appropriately.

“In drawing up our proposals, we have been very aware of the potentially devastating impact of these offences on victims. Long sentences are available for the most serious offences. Sentencers are also encouraged to use their powers where appropriate to ban people from keeping dogs or to order them to pay compensation to victims.

“This is a public consultation. We are interested in hearing from people with expertise or an interest in this issue so that we can develop guidelines that are clear, proportionate and effective.”

Trevor Cooper, dog law specialist at Dogs Trust, the UK’s largest dog welfare charity, commented:

“Courts often face the difficult task of deciding on appropriate sentencing in dog cases, which can be emotive and complex. These draft guidelines on dangerous dog offences will help to provide much needed clarity and consistency in assessing individual cases. This is vital with the changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act coming into force last year. Dogs Trust are pleased to see the proposals recognise that there can be a range of culpability on the part of offenders for these offences, and that courts should carefully consider the appropriate sentence in each case.”

Richard Monkhouse JP, Chairman of the Magistrates Association, said:

“There has been an increase in dangerous dog cases coming before the courts over the past 10 years and following the significant changes in the law, we are pleased that new guidelines are being introduced. They will help magistrates decide on appropriate sentences for the variety of offenders they deal with and assist them in taking other actions necessary to keep the public safe, such as by banning an offender from owning a dog.”