The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 does not work: it has failed to bring about the extinction of “banned breeds”, has failed to reduce the number of dog bite incidents, is notoriously poorly drafted and comes with an unacceptably high financial and emotional cost. It is therefore no surprise that there are growing calls for its reform.
What Should New Legislation Seek to Achieve?
If the case for reform is accepted what should a new Act seek to achieve?
Firstly, it should seek to abandon condemnation by appearance and seek to promote responsible ownership instead. Under the current rules a dog becomes a prohibited dog based on its appearance alone. That appearance triggers a court procedure that must, if the dog appears to be a prohibited dog, lead to a destruction order being made. Although a court may choose to suspend that order if it is satisfied that the dog does not pose a risk to public safety and the owner is a fit and proper person to have the dog expensive legal proceedings must follow. Further, whilst a dog may be destroyed simply because it had the misfortune to be kept by an unsuitable person, once the dog is destroyed there is nothing to prevent that unsuitable owner getting another dog and so the process continues.
Secondly, the legislation should actively promote responsible dog ownership by prohibiting unacceptable behaviour by owners whilst promoting responsible behaviour. Such a scheme must include registration, something which is already required in respect of all dogs under the microchipping rules and mandatory third party insurance which is currently only required in respect of exempted banned breeds.
Thirdly, there has to be a proper scheme of enforcement which should provide for dogs to be removed from unsuitable owners, re-homed where possible and which enables unsuitable owners or keepers to be banned from owning a dog in the future. At present the law favours killing the dog rather than excluding a person from owning and keeping a dog, although disqualification orders are often used in animal cruelty cases.
Finally, the legislation should seek to remove the burden placed on the police, local authorities and the courts. That can be achieved in two ways, first by reducing the need for kennelling costs by promoting re-housing through recognised animal charities and secondly through a compulsory insurance scheme that enables victims of dog bite incidents to be compensated in appropriate cases without the need for criminal proceedings, in much the same way as the consequences of road traffic accidents are dealt with by insurers without the need for prosecution under the Road Traffic Acts, save in serious offences.
Achieving those objectives would lead to a much fairer, less expensive and more effective scheme capable of setting an international standard of responsible and effective dog legislation.
How might this be achieved?
In our view the Act is capable of reform by focusing on behaviour by promoting that which is good and prohibiting that which is bad.
Promoting Responsible Ownership
There is a clear need to be able to identify the owner or keeper of a dog. The rules that were recently introduced to require dogs to be microchipped are a good start as they create a database without any cost to central government and build on the requirement that a dog wears an identity disc.
At present only prohibited dogs which have been exempted form destruction have to be insured against third party risks. Responsible owners will have such insurance as part of their household insurance or within a vet care insurance policy. Additionally, the Dogs’ Trust offer insurance as part of their membership scheme. There is no reason why the existence of such insurance could not be recorded as part of the microchip database. The advantage would be that those who are bitten by a dog would be able to check that the owner had a policy of insurance without recourse to the police and many minor dog bite incidents would be settled outside court by insurers in exactly the same way as minor road traffic accidents are dealt with. As with car insurance it should be an offence not have third party insurance.
Prohibiting Poor Ownership
The breed specific provisions of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 were enacted in part to address the problem of typically young male owners on the fringes of society being in possession of status dogs. It was understandably a step too far for Parliament to consider criminalising those youths on account of their appearance and ordering their castration as an alternative to execution and so it was the destruction of their dogs, based on their appearance was sanctioned and has proved to be ineffective.
A much better approach would be to criminalise the behaviour of irresponsible owners. This could be achieved by making it an offence to possess a dog with the intention of using that dog to threaten or to cause harassment, alarm or distress to any person. There are similar offences within the Public Order Act 1986, the police understand them and use them effectively.
It may there would be a scope for a wider catch all offence of being in possession of a dog with intent to use that dog for any criminal purpose, as that would catch offences connected with badger baiting and dog fighting which are already statutory offences but require the culprit to be caught in the act of committing the offence.
Other anti-social behaviour associated with dog ownership could also be included within this offence group, such as dog fouling so as to avoid the need for local authorities to have to make bye-laws.
There will inevitably be a need to keep an offence of being the person in charge a dog dangerously out of control on the statute book, but in order to make that offence much clearer and more easily understood the definition of what amounts to being “dangerously out of control” should be included within the offence and not tucked away in the definitions section as it is now.
There is a long standing tradition that penalties should be set by Parliament and therefore setting the level of punishment is not a matter for us, however the rules about destruction go to punishing the animal, not the owner and once a dog has been destroyed there is nothing to prevent the offender going and getting another dog. For those reasons the focus should be on education and disqualification, rather than destruction.
The courts should be empowered to consider disqualifying offenders from keeping a dog if they are not responsible enough to do so. The length of such disqualification must be a matter for the court to assess. If it is to be effective such an order should prevent the offender residing in a residence where a dog is kept, otherwise the issue would arise as to who owns a family pet or other residents at the same address could be penalised.
The issue then arises of what should become of dogs who belonged to owners who have been disqualified from keeping them. There are excellent animal charities who work tirelessly to re-home animals. Enabling the courts to order that such a dog should be released to such a charity for responsible re-homing would be a great step forward and a practical alternative to destruction.
What of Breed Specific Clauses?
The breed specific clauses have not worked. Had they done so over the past 25 years all the banned breeds would be extinct. They haven’t worked and the financial and emotional costs of continuing to operate this defective legislation is unjustifiable and unsustainable. The only thing to do with those provisions is to repeal them and consign them to history.
What are we going to do?
We will continue to campaign for the repeal of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.
What can you do?
There are many organisations campaigning for the reform of these laws and they could always do with your support. Born Innocent are running a current high profile campaign which we are pleased to support. You can also help by asking the Law Commission to review the legislation. They have a current open consultation inviting views about which areas of legislation need reform and you find details of that and the form on which to respond here.