Dog Theft: A New Offence, for an Old Reason?

The Government is currently in the process of passing legislation to create a new offence of dog theft. As is to be expected, there is a press release on the Government website promoting this development of criminal law brought to us by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

The Kept Animals Bill is going to introduce not only the offence of dog theft, but will also feature measures to “further protect pets, livestock and kept wild animals.”

The supposed demand for action to be taken about dog thefts stems from the covid-19 pandemic in 2020-21. During the periods of lockdown, the price of puppies or dogs rose substantially. This meant that there was more money to be made from breeding dogs, and some people resorted to stealing pets for this purpose.

But while that will have been distressing for anyone who lost a pet, there is literally no need to create a new offence or pass legislation: the offence of theft already applies to a situation where a pet is stolen. Theft carries a maximum sentence of 7 years; dog theft will only carry a maximum of 5.

Given the limitations of Parliamentary time, a cynic may wonder why Boris Johnson’s Government would push this issue. After all, the entire criminal justice system is on its knees with a backlog of trials and a shortage of funding, Covid infection rates are higher in the UK than in mainland Europe, and there is intense scrutiny into allegations of Tory sleaze…

So what better time to create a completely useless “new” offence to generate some positive-sounding headlines while achieving precisely nothing?

Given the supposed goals of the Kept Animals Bill (beyond creating a pointless offence of dog theft), it could have been hoped that DEFRA would have reconsidered other criminal offences relating to dogs. Unfortunately there will be no consideration of altering or updating the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and so 30 years of breed specific legislation will continue without any amendment.

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Animal Protection Services: Improper Prosecution?

Animal Protection Services (APS) is a registered charity claiming to work against animal cruelty. Recently, they had begun to act as private prosecutors taking people to court for offences involving the sale of animals as pets.

However, the charity has been strongly criticised by the Honorary Recorder of Manchester, HHJ Dean QC, for acting in a way that was “an affront to the conscience of the criminal justice system.” The Recorder’s comments were utterly scathing, as he ruled on two specific cases at Manchester Crown Court. He also referred to the judgment of HHJ Lloyd, who heard another case brought by Animal Protection Services at Preston Crown Court

Motivations for Bringing Private Prosecutions

APS had instructed Parry and Welch Solicitors (PAWS), a firm of solicitors with a history of specialising in dangerous dogs litigation, to prosecute dozens of people for selling pets without a licence and for breaching consumer protection legislation. For every case they brought, Animal Protection Services and PAWS would claim over £5,000 of taxpayer’s money.

Given that most of Animal Protection Service’s prosecutions were heard in the Magistrates’ Court, with as many as 15-20 cases in a day, there were questions about what the real motivations were for bringing these cases.

Deeply Flawed Investigations

In the overwhelming majority of these cases, APS had “investigated” people who had posted advertisements on the Pets4Homes website. The extent of these investigations went no further than to obtain details of the user accounts, and to issue a summons: no interview under caution, no enquiry to find out any of the details of the advertised sales… just straight to court.

The biggest problem is that when these cases came before the Magistrates’ Court, most defendants were unrepresented and expected to understand relatively obscure legislation and regulations. Anecdotal evidence referred to in the Manchester Crown Court case suggests that defendants pled guilty because of what they were told by the prosecutor.

However, a few people elected to have their case heard in the Crown Court… and in every case that was sent to the Crown Court for trial, Animal Protection Services and PAWS decided not to pursue the case. The obvious inference is that the cases were flawed, and would come under much greater scrutiny by the solicitors or barristers acting for the defence: APS wanted to avoid that attention.

This is precisely what happened in the Manchester Crown Court case, leading to the Recorder taking the unusual step of halting the cases as an abuse of process, as well as finding that there was insufficient evidence to establish either charge against the defendants

For more information about the decision to halt Animal Protection Services’ cases, click on the these links:

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