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Cases involving animal welfare evoke strong emotions in those who hear about them, and they regularly appear in the news.
One such case has received little attention, but provides invaluable guidance on the law that underpins when animals can be taken from their owners, and when owners can be banned from keeping animals. The case is Barker v RSPCA  EWHC 880 (Admin) - the first case on the offence under s.9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 ("the act") to reach the High Court.
The animals in question (6 dogs) were kept in crates for 21 hours a day in a cluttered environment. They suffered from fleas and were in poor health. The eldest suffered from an untreated disease. There were no concerns for a pet terrapin.
The RSPCA told the owners the dogs needed flea treatment and the house needed cleaning. They also suggested the dogs be sterilized. The RSPCA arranged to collect the dogs for sterilisation at a later date.
The owners took steps to follow the advice, but the Vet requested to carry out the sterilisation expressed concern. An RSPCA Inspector attended the property. Due to the flea infestation the dogs were not returned to the owners. The eldest was put down due to her ill health and the others were taken to a kennel.
At an interview under caution, the owners stated they were intending to continue the flea treatment and admitted the eldest dog should have been taken to a vet sooner.
The Magistrates' Court decision
By the time the matter reached the Magistrates' Court, two offences were alleged under Section 9 of the act. The first related to a failure to seek appropriate medical care for the eldest dog, and the other related to the failure to address the flea infestation in relation to the other dogs. Guilty pleas were entered by the owners.
The Magistrates' disqualified both owners from keeping animals for seven years and made a deprivation order, removing their animals from their care. They were also required to pay prosecution costs. This was the decision that was appealed to the Crown Court.
The Crown Court decision
The Crown Court denied the appeal. It did however vary the order, allowing the owners to keep terrapins. This decision was also appealed.
The High Court decision
At the High Court the owners suggested they should not be disqualified as they posed little future risk. They also suggested that the deprivation order and disqualification order for seven years were harsh and oppressive, and contrary to their rights to a private and family life under Article 8 of the ECHR.
The High Court disagreed. In doing so, it gave guidance on the law concerning disqualifications from owning animals.
The judge highlighted the three types of orders that can be made under the act in relation to disqualification. These orders cannot identify specific animals, they can only prohibit/allow the ownership of specific animals:
- An "all animals" disqualification - where a person is banned from keeping any animal.
- An order banning the individual from owning some types of animals but not others.
- An order disqualifying the owner from owning animals generally except for certain types. This type of order is likely to be made where it can be evidenced that harm to a particular type of animal is unlikely (e.g. like terrapins in this case)
In addition, the judge decided the 7 year disqualification was not outside the court's sentencing discretion, which can disqualify for life. The key point was that disqualification orders are designed to be protective of animals, rather than punitive to defendants. The judge held that the high bar required to interfere in a lower court's decision was not met in the case as the lower court had borne this in mind, and imposed a disqualification that was not arbitrary or excessively long. Furthermore, he held the order did not infringe any ECHR rights.
On the basis of the decision in Baker, it appears that orders disqualifying owners from keeping pets are hard to challenge, especially where the court imposing the order bears in mind the protective nature of such orders and balances the defendant's rights with the protection of animals.
Baker indicates the importance of robustly arguing against the imposition of such orders at an early stage. It also shows that where orders are imposed with proper consideration, appeals are unlikely to succeed.
In such a case it may be more prudent for disqualified owners to focus their efforts on serving some of their ban and demonstrate their rehabilitation in support of an application to cancel the disqualification, rather than take the step of incurring legal fees to appeal the order.