Tougher punishments for animal cruelty crimes in England and Wales

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Sad dogImage source, Getty Images

Courts are set to be given powers to hand out tougher punishments for serious animal cruelty crimes, under proposed new sentencing guidelines.

Updated guidance in England and Wales will affect sentences for crimes like causing unnecessary suffering, tail docking and animal fighting.

Cruelty for money, as part of organised crime or particularly "sadistic" cases, will be considered the most serious.

It follows the maximum penalty being raised in 2021 to five years in prison.

The Sentencing Council's updated guidance for judges and magistrates will mean "sadistic or extreme cases" or those carried out "in the context of commercial or organised criminal activity" will be assessed at the "highest culpability".

Cases that involve multiple incidents or the use of significant force will also increase an offender's responsibility, the council explained.

Crimes which lead an animal to die, sustain life-threatening injuries, or experience substantial pain or suffering may also attract a stronger sentence.

The proposals from the Sentencing Council, the body which sets sentencing guidelines for all criminal offences in England and Wales, will be put out for public consultation until August.

Sentencing guidelines are designed to ensure judges and magistrates in courts take a consistent approach to sentencing.

The courts must follow them in sentencing convicted offenders unless it is in the interests of justice not to do so.

Other circumstances which will now be treated as aggravating factors in sentencing include:

  • Cases which affect a significant number of animals
  • Images of the cruelty being shared on social media
  • Crimes committed in the presence of children

Sentencing Council member Judge Rosa Dean said animal cruelty is a serious offence which can "cause great distress" to those who have been "ill-treated or neglected or even forced to fight each other for entertainment".

"Animals are not able to defend themselves or draw attention to their suffering, and it is important that courts have the powers to deliver appropriate sentences to offenders who commit these crimes," she added.

Chris Sherwood, chief executive of animal welfare charity the RSCPA, welcomed the move to update the sentencing guidelines following "years of campaigning" to get the law changed.

He said: "We're pleased that the council is seeking views on the guidelines and that animals will soon have better protection from those who hurt them and exploit them."

The move follows the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill being approved by Parliament in 2021, which raised the maximum sentence for the worst animal cruelty crimes from six months to five years.

The harshest sentences will be for dog fighting, abuse of puppies and kittens, or gross neglect of farm animals under the updated law.

It was written to complement the so-called Finn's Law, which provides more protection for service dogs and horses.

Courts had previously indicated they wanted to hand down longer sentences in recent years but they were not available.