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United Kingdom: New Bill Strengthens Animal Protection, Recognizes Animals as Sentient Beings

(Dec. 14, 2017) A draft bill introduced before the British Parliament on December 12, 2017, aims to strengthen animal protection and contribute to raising welfare standards for animals across the United Kingdom. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Draft Bill will increase ten-fold the maximum sentence the courts can impose under section 32 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, from six months to five years. The courts will retain the power to impose an unlimited fine and ban convicted offenders from owning animals. (Animal Welfare Act 2006, c. 45, LEGISLATION.GOV.UK; Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Draft Bill, 2017-18, Cm 9554, cl. 1(1) (Draft Bill), GOV.UK.)

The Draft Bill also places a duty on the government to formulate and implement policy and laws with regard to “the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings.” (Draft Bill.) In discharging this duty, the government must continue to have regard to the public interest. The government has stated: “there was never any question that our policies on animal welfare are driven by the fact that animals are sentient beings … .  I am keen to reinforce this in legislation as we leave the EU.” (Id. at 4.)

Background

The change in law comes as a result of both public outrage and judicial frustration at the penalties the courts have at their disposal to impose on individuals who have severely abused animals.  (Press Release, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Environment Secretary Publishes Bill to Strengthen Animal Welfare (Dec. 12, 2017).) An animal charity stated that “(t)he current maximum cruelty sentence of six months in England and Wales is neither a punishment nor a deterrent.” (Id.) The government notes that around 1,150 individuals are convicted of animal cruelty each year, but only a small fraction of these involve extreme animal cruelty. The new change in the law will enable the courts to deal with these offenders more effectively and “bring maximum sentences for animal cruelty in England into line with other countries such as Australia, Canada and the Republic of Ireland.” (Id.)

This is not the only animal welfare bill before Parliament – the Service Animal (Offences) Bill 2017-19 was introduced on December 5, 2017. This bill will make it an offense to attack service animals, which include police dogs and horses, and makes specified offenses aggravated offenses if they involve these animals. (632 Parl. Deb. HC (5th Ser.) 2017 632, Service Animal (Offences) Bill 2017-19, Bill 138, Parliament website.)