New guidelines proposed for dangerous dog laws
20 years after the controversial Dangerous Dogs Act became UK law, judges have published the first sentencing guidelines for people convicted for dangerous dogs offences
in England and Wales.
In light of the 1,700-plus people prosecuted under dangerous dog laws
in 2010, it is hoped the guidelines will ensure consistent and proportionate sentencing, said the Sentencing Council for England and Wales (SCEW).
Anne Arnold, a district judge and a member of the SCEW, said: "We want to ensure that irresponsible dog owners who put the public at risk are sentenced appropriately."
"Our guideline gives guidance to courts on making the best use of their powers so that people can be banned from keeping dogs, genuinely dangerous dogs can be put down and compensation can be paid to victims."
The SCEW, which advises courts on the appropriate punishments within the range set out by Parliament, said it was proposing to start with community orders for people who allow out-of-control dogs to cause injury
The council said people convicted of the lesser offence of possessing a banned dog should face a fine
, with jail
reserved for only the most extreme cases
Unless it is satisfied that an animal would not pose a risk to the public, such as through muzzling and control at all times, a court should order a dog's destruction.
However, the SCEW said there should still be a wide degree of discretion, and courts need not automatically consider destroying a dog in minor cases.
The guidelines do not cover those who deliberately use dogs to attack, because such incidents should lead to prosecutions for assault and serious violent crimes.
The key offences under the Act are: a dog dangerously out of control, causing injury
; a dog dangerously out of control; possession of a banned dog; breeding, selling or exchanging a banned dog.
Breaking the dangerous dog laws currently carries a maximum sentence of 2 years in prison, public opinion of which remains sharply divided.
Convictions for dangerous dog offences rose from 855 to 1,192 between 2009 and 2010, according to Ministry of Justice figures, while the government estimates that treating dog injuries costs the NHS more than £3m a year.
However, the 1991 act, which many believe was rushed into law under media pressure, remains one of the UK's most controversial items of legislation. For this reason clarification of the dangerous dog laws is vital.