Animals Act Consultation

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Currently owners of animals which "are of a dangerous species" are strictly liable for their actions and any injury that may result.

The government wishes to amend section 2(2)(b) of the Animals Act 1971 to clarify the application of strict liability to the keepers of animals which "are of a non dangerous species" such as horses, dogs etc.

The purpose of the amendment is to protect keepers of animals who have taken all reasonable precautions to prevent their animals causing harm. The main purpose of the proposed amendment is to clarify the interpretation of section 2(2) of the Animals. Since the Animals Act was passed there has been conflicting case decisions and disagreement as to how the Act should be interpreted.

The House of Lords decision in the case of Mirvahedy v Henley (2003) potentially meant that animal keepers who had taken all reasonable precautions to prevent damage occurring could be found to be strictly at fault. The result of this is that insurance premiums of many animal establishments such as riding schools and petting zoos have increased considerably and in the public interest the government believes that the law relating to animals should be clarified to make it fairer to keepers of non dangerous animal species.

Proposals


To replace the existing wording of section 2(2) of the Animals Act 1971 with new wording referring to the damage being caused by conditional or unusual characteristics.

Unusual characteristics


Are those that are not shared by the species generally. The keeper of the animal would automatically be at fault in cases where an unusual characteristic was the cause of the damage and the keeper of the animal at the time must have known of the characteristic in the animal.

Conditional characteristics


Are those that are shared by a species, eg an animal may be aggressive when it is protecting its young. If the keeper of an animal can show that when the incident took place there was no reason to expect that the particular circumstances that provoked the conditional characteristics would arise they will not be at fault.

Good or bad


The government believes that the law relating to non dangerous animals will be easier to understand and apply. Currently Judges interpret and apply the Animals Act differently. The government wishes to make it easier for victims of animal attacks to anticipate the outcome of any court action.

People injured in accidents will be affected because the law will be clearer about when compensation claims can be made against keepers of non dangerous animals and when they cannot.

The proposed amendment to the law will also help animal keepers of non dangerous animals to consider their legal position more clearly in the event of accidents involving their animals.

Concerns


  • Persons suffering injury for example through dog attacks such as postman may argue that strict liability should apply in all cases involving harm or injury by animals. Such a system exists in France where animal keepers are expected to take out insurance to cover the actions of their animals. This promotes greater responsibility for the animal and its welfare.
  • It would also clarify the law once and for all.
  • Will victims of dangerous dogs be able to continue to pursue claims for compensation for their injuries if the Act is to be amended? Currently the ability to pursue a successful case depends upon whether they can show any fault on the keeper of the animal in negligence or that they can show that the circumstances that caused the injury fell within the scope of strict liability in section 2(2) of the Animals Act. The proposed amendments may mean that some people who can currently claim may not be able to do so.
  • Currently, a large number of cases are not brought before the courts as evidence in negligence cannot be obtained to support the strict liability criteria in section 2 (2) of the Animals Act 1971.
  • If a dangerous dog attacks in the keepers private property fault in negligence may be avoided if the proposed ‘unusual’ or ‘conditional’ requirements are not satisfied. There will be no compensation via the criminal courts under the Dangerous Dogs Act as the offence does not occur on private property.
  • Conditional characteristics are defined as those that are shared by the same species but only in particular circumstances. The danger is that "particular circumstances" is not defined in the bill and it would be for the courts to decide what constitutes them in the light of the details of cases brought before them. Again there is scope for Judges to differently interpret "particular circumstances" and provide conflicting case decisions which will not simplify or clarify matters to assists victims of animal attacks in claims for compensation.

A number of people will be adversely affected by the proposed changes as they may not be able to claim compensation for injuries sustained in genuine accidents where no fault or liability is involved and where there is no alternative route to compensation through insurance or litigation. If the proposed changes to the law are successful they are likely to come into force from the 1st October 2009. The Act applies in England and Wales only.

The government does not believe that strict liability should apply in cases where damage has been caused by non dangerous animals which are not known to possess dangerous characteristics.


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