In the Daily Mail on Friday 21 February 2014, it was reported that unemployed Laura Cunliffe, 23 from Barnsley, pleaded guilty at Barnsley Magistrates’ Court to causing unnecessary suffering of an animal.
On 13 March 2014, she was sentenced to 14 weeks’ imprisonment.
Animal Welfare Act 2006 s 4 creates the offence of causing unnecessary suffering. It is a summary only offence meaning it can only be tried in a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum sentence is 6 months and/or a £20,000 fine.
The Mail’s article, which contains some disturbing pictures, can be seen here.
She had a 4 month old kitten – Mowgli.
Mowgli reportedly ‘attacked’ Ms Cunliffe’s goldfish. Ms Cunliffe then appears to have placed Mowgli into the microwave and set it to cook for 5 minutes.
Mowgli reportedly was still alive when Ms Cunliffe removed him from the microwave, but was struggling to breathe. Ms Cunliffe then took Mowgli to a relatives house. He died some 90 minutes after Ms Cunliffe removed him from the microwave.
The prosecution was brought by the RSPCA, who reportedly said: ‘The main reason the RSPCA took this case in order to achieve disqualifications in order to protect animals and prevent further suffer in the future.’
The deputy chief inspector said: ‘It is particularly horrendous because of the period of suffering for the kitten which would have been awful.’
She said that the exposure to the radiation in the microwave would have cooked the animal’s internal organs.
She said: ‘It is an horrific case in the fact that the death of the cat would have been prolonged and it is unimaginable what it would have gone through taking some time to die.
Prior to the sentencing hearing, her defence advocate reportedly said that Ms Cunliffe had suffered from psychosis and depression, having been detained under Mental Health legislation ‘several times’.
The BBC reported that in mitigation, her solicitor said that Ms Cunliffe had longstanding problems with psychotic depression and had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act 20 times.
There are guidelines which apply to this offence. See numbered page 22 [40 of the PDF]. There are three categories and arguably this offences does not neatly fall into any of them.
The bottom category describes ‘One impulsive act causing little or no injury’ which this is clearly not.
The middle category describes: Several incidents of deliberate ill-treatment/frightening animal(s); medium term neglect’ which doesn’t seem to fit either.
The top category describes: ‘Attempt to kill/torture; animal baiting/conducting or permitting cock-fighting etc.; prolonged neglect’ which on balance isn’t a perfect match either, as one presumes Ms Cunliffe pleaded guilty on the basis that she did not intend to kill or torture the animal.
The BBC reported: District Judge John Foster said “This was an act of utterly horrendous cruelty on your part on an animal that, as far as I could see, had come to trust you and rely on you.”
14 weeks’ imprisonment, and a disqualification from owning or keeping etc. animals, under Protection of Animals Act 1911 s 2, for life.
The starting point for the top category in the guidelines is 18 weeks. Ms Cunliffe pleaded guilty and so some credit (presumably 1/3) would have been given for that. Her mental health issues provide strong mitigation and so despite the seriousness of the offence, 14 weeks immediate custody appears to be over the top (even with the aggravating factor that the kitten died). Perhaps a suspended sentence might have been more appropriate and proportionate, considering Ms Cunliffe’s difficulties. It would appear that treatment, not abandonment, is what is required.
The disqualification order seems entirely appropriate.