Anyone convicted of offenses against animals in Scotland had better watch out. Thanks to a new law introduced in the country this year, those found guilty of an act of animal cruelty or abuse can now be sentenced to a five-year prison term. Regardless of whether you think of prison as a deterrent, a punishment, or something in between, you have to applaud a country that’s not only willing to put crimes against animals at the top of its agenda, but that’s prepared to dole out sentences that fit the crime. Although in all fairness, it’s taken a while to get there…
The Law Prior to 2020
Prior to July 2020, animal abuse in Scotland carried a maximum sentence of just 12 months’ imprisonment, one of the shortest maximum sentences in Europe. The leniency of the sentence was a constant source of frustration to animal welfare charities, who’ve long campaigned for Scotland to bring its sentencing laws into line with the rest of the continent. “We’ve long campaigned for harsher punishments for animal cruelty,” Kirsteen Campbell, the CEO of the Scottish SPCA, explained to the Edinburgh Evening News. “We hope increased sentencing and unlimited fines will act as a greater deterrent to people mistreating animals.”
The Campaign for Longer Sentencing
After many years of lobbying, animal welfare charities had cause for celebration this summer when members of the Scottish Parliament unanimously approved increasing the maximum punishment for people convicted of crimes against animals from 12 months to five years. As the BBC reports, the movement towards a change began when the Sottish government began the consultation process of reviewing both the current maximum jail terms and maximum fines in February 2019. It also looked at the potential of introducing a version of “Finn’s Law” to allow more severe retribution for crimes against service animals like police horses and dogs.
Speaking to the BBC, Scottish minister for rural affairs, Mairi Gougeon, voiced her support for increasing the punishment in the most serious cases. “Right now, the maximum penalty is 12 months in prison or a £20,000 fine,” she noted. “We think for the truly horrendous crimes we see those penalties should be tougher. The penalties should reflect the crime. “We’re also trying to make it easier for organizations to rehome animals which have been seized over welfare concerns,” she added. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home’s Chief Executive Claire Horton clearly agreed, saying “A 5-year sentence means courts have the power to appropriately punish animal cruelty. Battersea is urging animal lovers to respond to this call and contact their MSPs to make it clear that the public wants to see 5-year sentences become a reality.”
The public responded in their thousands. After months of consultation, the new bill was finally granted the Royal approval in July this year, passing into national law the following week. On hearing the news, Claire Horton said “Battersea is thrilled by this news from the Scottish Government, as a five-year deterrent in Scotland could go a long way to help many animals that are the innocent victims of unacceptable cruelty. “When we launched our campaign, there was a momentum building in favor of tougher sentences,” she added. “Today’s news proves the Government is listening. We believe this change will help protect animals and act as a deterrent to those who abuse and mistreat animals.”
The New Legislation
As well as increasing the maximum jail term for animal cruelty from one year to five years, the new legislation allows for unlimited fines to be imposed on anyone convicted of animal abuse. Prior to the change, fines had previously been capped at £20,000. It also introduces a new process to allow animals that have been rescued from abuse or removed from their owners on welfare grounds to be rehomed without first going through the courts – a process that until now, has proved painfully slow.
Scotland’s Punishment for Dog Abuse is What the World Needs
It seems that Scotland isn’t the only country catching up with the times. Last year, the US passed a law making the most serious cases of animal cruelty a federal offense. In Europe, most country’s carry a sentence of 5 years and either unlimited or substantial fines against the perpetrators of animal abuse. But not all countries have got with the program. England and Wales, for example, might be just across the border from Scotland, but for now, they’re still hanging on to some of the lightest punishments on the continent – a maximum of 6 months jail time, regardless of the severity of the case. Having seen success in Scotland, animal welfare charities are hoping they can soon inspire the rest of the UK to follow suit. “Battersea is calling for tougher cruelty sentences north and south of the border,” Claire Horton says. “So, with Scotland now bringing in five-year sentences, I sincerely hope this will make England and Wales follow suit.”
The Rest of the UK Could Soon Follow
Hopefully, it won’t be long before they do. Last July, former Environment Secretary Michael Gove introduced a Parliamentary bill to raise the maximum term for animal cruelty from six months to 5 years. The second reading of the bill was passed on Friday 23 October, and so far, all of the signs are pointing in the right direction. Speaking via gov.uk, Animal Welfare Minister Lord Goldsmith says, “There is no place for animal cruelty and this crucial piece of legislation will bring in more stringent sentences for animal abusers who commit heinous crimes. We will do all we can to support its swift passage through Parliament.”
Reacting to the developments, RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood has said,” We’re thrilled that we’re one step closer to getting real justice for abused and neglected animals in this country. Tougher sentencing would give courts more flexibility to impose longer prison terms to better reflect the severity of the crimes and to act as a stronger deterrent to others.” Now the Bill has been debated at second reading, it will be sent to a Public Bill Committee for further scrutiny. Although a date for the next stage has yet to be set, it’s believed that the change in Scotland will act as an impetus for quick, decisive action. Let’s certainly hope so.