News type:
Press releases

News topic:
Animal cruelty

Published on:

10 May 2023

Updated sentencing guidelines for animal cruelty offences that reflect changes introduced by the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021, were published today by the Sentencing Council following consultation.

For the first time, a new ‘Animal cruelty’ guideline gives judges and magistrates in England and Wales guidance for sentencing the most serious animal cruelty offences, including causing unnecessary suffering, tail docking and animal fighting.

The Council developed the guideline after the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 increased the maximum penalty for these offences from six months to five years’ custody.

A second guideline also published today, ‘Failure to ensure animal welfare’, revises elements of the Council’s existing animal cruelty sentencing guideline and applies to offences under section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006: breach of duty of person responsible for animal to ensure welfare.

This revised guideline, which applies in magistrates’ courts only, includes new aggravating factors for a significant number of animals harmed, the offender having a professional responsibility for the animals and offence motivated by financial gain.

Both guidelines have been developed in accordance with the Council’s usual procedures, which include public consultation and analysis of current sentencing practice. The guidelines, which apply to adults only, come into force on 1 July 2023.

Sentencing Council member Her Honour Judge Rosa Dean, said:

“Animal cruelty is a serious offence and animals can experience untold suffering at the hands of people who they trust to look after them, including being left in appalling conditions or forced to fight each other for money.

“The new guidelines will guarantee that courts have the powers to deliver appropriate sentences to offenders who mistreat animals.”

Under the updated guidelines, sentences for the most serious offences would be expected to increase. Sadistic or extreme cases or cases involving prolonged incidents of serious cruelty will be assessed at the highest culpability. Cases involving multiple incidents or the use of significant force will also increase an offender’s culpability.

Where an offender’s actions have caused an animal to die or sustain life-threatening injuries, or have caused substantial pain or suffering, this may also attract a higher sentence than previously. Where a case affects a significant number of animals, involves images of the cruelty being shared on social media, or is committed in the presence of children, these will now be treated as aggravating factors.

RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood said:

“We know most people in this country share our love of animals. But sadly, our officers deal with perpetrators of serious animal abuse on a daily basis, and our legal system must be equipped to deliver justice for these animals.

“The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021” was a monumental moment for animal welfare legislation, empowering the courts to hand out sentences that more accurately reflect the seriousness of these crimes.

“We welcome the Sentencing Council updated guidance as it gives judges and magistrates clarity and clearly recognises animal cruelty in the guidance for the first time in what is a landmark moment. As one of the RSPCA’s founders Richard Martin said, if legislation to protect animals is to be effective, it must be adequately enforced and as we approach our 200th anniversary this message is still as important as it was then.

“The cases our officers investigate can be very complex and it is welcome that the guidance looks at factors like the number of animals harmed and the connection to financial gain which our officers on the frontline witness when seeking to bring perpetrators to justice.”

Notes to editors

  1. The current sentencing guideline for animal cruelty, applies to offences contrary to the following sections of the Animal Welfare Act 2006: section 4 (causing unnecessary suffering), section 8 (involvement in an animal fight) and section 9 (breach of duty of person responsible for animal to ensure welfare).
  2. The guideline was last revised in 2017 and until 2021, the offences it covered were summary only, triable in magistrates’ courts and subject to a maximum penalty of 6 months’ custody.
  3. In 2021, Parliament passed the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act, which increased the maximum sentence for specific offences under the 2006 Act from six months to five years’ custody and made these either way offences, meaning they could be heard in magistrates’ courts or the Crown Court.
  4. Following the 2021 Act and the increase in maximum penalties, the Council issued interim guidance for sentencing offences committed on or after 29 June 2021. The following offences were impacted by the change:
  • Causing unnecessary suffering (section 4, Animal Welfare Act 2006);
  • Carrying out a non-exempted mutilation (section 5, Animal Welfare Act 2006);
  • Docking the tail of a dog except where permitted (section 6(1) and 6(2), Animal Welfare Act 2006);
  • Administering a poison to an animal (section 7, Animal Welfare Act 2006); and
  • Involvement in an animal fight (section 8, Animal Welfare Act 2006).
  1. Sentencing guidelines must be followed, unless the court is satisfied that it would be contrary to the interest of justice to do so in all the circumstances of a particular case.
  2. The Sentencing Council was established by Parliament to be an independent body, but accountable to Parliament for its work which is scrutinised by the Justice Select Committee. Justice Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the Sentencing Council’s effectiveness and efficiency, for its use of public funds and for protecting its independence. Judicial Council members are appointed by the Lord Chief Justice with the agreement of the Lord Chancellor. Non-judicial council members are appointed by the Lord Chancellor with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice.
  3. For more information, please contact Kathryn Montague, Sentencing Council Press Office, on 020 7071 5792 / 5788 / 07912301657 or email ;