Dangerous dog owners to face tougher penalties
Owners of dangerous dogs which attack people in public will face stiffer penalties from today, including up to 18 months in prison.
The new guidelines - for judges dealing with people convicted of being owners of dangerously out of control dogs which harm others in a public place - mean tougher sentences which could see more offenders jailed or given community orders and fewer discharged.
Courts will also be encouraged to ban irresponsible owners who put the public at risk from keeping dogs, order dangerous dogs to be put down and arrange compensation for victims under the rules brought in by the Sentencing Council, an independent body of the Ministry of Justice.
Anyone using an animal as a weapon to attack someone would still be sentenced for assault, but the new guidelines cover both dogs which were dangerously out of control and the possession of banned dogs.
"With increasing numbers of convictions for offences involving dangerous dogs in recent years, the new guideline will help ensure courts use their full powers when dealing with offenders," a Sentencing Council spokesman said.
"The Sentencing Council's guideline aims to provide clear guidance to judges and magistrates to encourage consistency in sentencing and appropriate sentences for owners of dangerous dogs.
"The top of the sentencing range for owners allowing their dog to be dangerously out of control (and) injuring someone has been set at 18 months' custody in order to encourage the courts to use more severe sentences when it would be appropriate to do so."
Under the guidelines, owners, or anyone in charge of a dangerously out of control dog, would face up to 18 months in jail, with the sentence rising to the legal maximum of two years in exceptional cases.
The most serious cases could include incidents where a dangerously out of control dog has caused serious injury during a sustained attack, injured a child, or where the owner has failed to respond to previous warnings or concerns.
Any deliberate goading of the dog by its owner would also be seen as an aggravating factor by judges.
But the owner could walk free from court with a discharge if the injuries caused were only minor, attempts had been made to regain control of the dog and safety steps had been taken by the owner.
In cases where no injury is caused, owners could still face up to six months in jail if they allow their dogs to be dangerously out of control in a public place, especially if children or other vulnerable people such as the elderly or disabled people were around at the time.
But the starting point for the most serious of offences would be a community order, while a lesser offence could attract a fine.
The council also issued guidelines for judges sentencing those involved in the possession of prohibited dogs, including the pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro.
The maximum sentence, it said, should be six months in custody. However, all but the most serious of cases would attract fines or be discharged.
Training a dog to fight or possessing paraphernalia for dog fighting will also be seen as an aggravating factor attracting a tougher sentence following concerns from London Mayor Boris Johnson and the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers.
In May, when the changes were first announced, The Dogs Trust said they would encourage courts to focus on "the key factors of culpability of the owner and the amount of harm to the victim".
Steve Goody, director of external affairs at animal welfare charity Blue Cross, warned that tougher sentencing alone was not enough to prevent dog attacks.
"The campaign to reform the current Dangerous Dogs Act has been dragging on for some 20 years now," he said.
"We feel that there is an urgent need for preventative action, or dog attacks will continue to increase.
"We believe the introduction of useful, practical measures could be used specifically to target irresponsible dog owners before an attack happens."
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