In the Daily Mail on 29 July 2015, there appeared a story about 22 year old Hayley Cowan. The story appears to have caused some on social media to question whether or not sentencing levels for offences of animal cruelty are too low.
Cowan owned Beau, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Beau. “Friends” of Cowan had previously taken Beau from Cowan after she had kicked her in the face, but was returned to her after Cowan promised not to hurt her. Beau appeared to have gone missing and the friends became worried as to her whereabouts.
One friend looked in Cowan’s garden and subsequently dug up the dog’s remains. It is unclear how the location of the dog’s body became known or suspected by the friend.
Upon discovering the body, the friend called the RSPCA. A post mortem confirmed that Beau had died from strangulation as a result of duct tape being wrapped around her muzzle, and her collar tightened. She also had bruising to her limbs suggesting that she had been held down.
Cowan pleaded guilty to two counts of causing unnecessary suffering, under s.4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006:
(1) A person commits an offence if—
(a) an act of his, or a failure of his to act, causes an animal to suffer,
(b) he knew, or ought reasonably to have known, that the act, or failure to act, would have that effect or be likely to do so,
(c) the animal is a protected animal, and
(d) the suffering is unnecessary.
(An animal is a “protected animal” for the purposes of the Act if (a) it is of a kind which is commonly domesticated in the British Islands, (b) it is under the control of man whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or (c) it is not living in a wild state.)
The offence is summary only (only triable in the magistrates’ court) and so the maximum sentence is 6 months imprisonment or a £20,000 fine.
In mitigation it was said that Cowan had mental health problems.
She was given a sentence of 4 months’ imprisonment. She was also disqualified from keeping an animal indefinitely and ordered to pay £500 in costs.
The guidelines (see p.22) don’t appear to envisage the actual killing of an animal: the top category states:“Attempt to kill/torture; animal baiting/conducting or permitting cock-fighting etc.; prolonged neglect”. That has a starting point of 18 weeks’ custody and a range of 12 – 26 weeks.
The reaction – as detailed in the Mail article – has been one of shock. Many people suggested that Cowan should have received a sentence measured in years and have requested that “the authorities” review the sentence (I’ll come back to this shortly).
Set against the maximum sentence of 6 months, this would appear to be a very stiff sentence. There were two offences, but the maximum in the magistrates’ court for multiple summary offences is 6 months. Cowan pleaded and so the starting point appears to have been one of 6 months – way above the guideline. This is justifiable on two bases, first that there is more than one offence, and second that there was the mistreatment of the dog (kicking) and then the killing of the dog (the strangulation), which together take the case above the top category in the guideline.
Should Cowan’s sentence be reviewed?
Because of the nature of the offence – it being summary only with a very low maximum, it is not possible for the Attorney General’s Office to review the sentence and refer it to the Court of Appeal as being unduly lenient. Such a measure is reserved for serious offences, those being either offences triable only on indictment, or offences that appear in a list set out in a Statutory instrument (including sexual offences such as sexual assault and sexual activity with a child). The offences tend to be those with a maximum sentence of 14 years or more. On a practical level, it would not be possible to extend the power to all offences as the AGO would be inundated with requests in respect of sentences at all levels of seriousness. One justification is that with a lower maximum sentence, there is less room to impose an unduly lenient sentence, whereas if the maximum is 14 years, there is a wide range open to the judge.
That leaves only one option.
Should sentences for animal cruelty be increased?
As a dog-owner I am bound to say yes. So how could that be achieved? Well the only way would be for Parliament to increase the maximum sentence. The Act actually states that the maximum sentence is 51 weeks, however this is limited to 6 months unless and until the power of the magistrates’ courts to imprison is extended from 6 months to 12 months.
Whilst this is an issue many feel strongly about, one suspects that Parliament would consider that they have more important business to take care of than upping the sentences for animal cruelty because of one or two shocking cases.