Pippa the cat was two years old. She lost her life one night in 2015, when her owner restrained, punched and slapped her, then bit her head and face before inflicting fatal injuries by slamming her against a wall. The whole incident was recorded by the owner’s terrified partner, and in due course it appeared on social media and was reported to the authorities.
Describing the killing as “a disgraceful act of cruelty against a young animal which resulted in the animal’s death”, the Sheriff at Dunfermline jailed the perpetrator for eight months for the cat killing and another six months for further offences. This was a significant sentence – and a rare one.
There are many concerns about the extent to which the punishments for animal cruelty in Scotland reflect the seriousness of the crime. OneKind has long called for our animal welfare laws to provide stiffer penalties, along with other measures to prevent re-offending. The point is not to put more people in prison but to make custodial sentences more meaningful when they are imposed. At present, court and custody rules mean that most sentences imposed are so short that they are meaningless.
OneKind was therefore delighted to welcome the Scottish Government’s recent proposal to increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences to five years’ imprisonment as well as allowing fixed penalty notices for lesser offences. This will bring Scotland in line with Northern Ireland and ahead of England and Wales in terms of sentencing powers available to the courts.
Currently in Scotland, the maximum penalties under the Animal Health and Welfare (Soctland) Act 2006 for offences involving cruelty or fighting are up to 12 months’ imprisonment, a £20,000 fine, or both.
These penalties might be adequate for a straightforward case involving few victims or with low level consequences. But the penalty level and the summary court process (the most common type, where there is no jury) quickly fall short when a case involves multiple victims, extreme behaviour or repeat offending. In other areas of the justice system, such as offences against the person or property, all of these factors justify a more severe penalty – why not for cruelty to animals?
We need to bear in mind that courts are often unable to impose the maximum penalties, for reasons that are outwith their control. The penalties in summary cases are regularly reduced by an automatic discount on short prison sentences, a one-third discount for an early guilty plea, and the possibility that 50% of the sentence may be spent on home detention with a tag. And so, that theoretical sentence of one year soon erodes to just a couple of months in prison – a sentence that neither reflects public abhorrence of cruelty to animals nor is likely to change the offender’s behaviour in any way.
There is probably no court in the land that can provide real justice for an innocent animal whose last minutes and hours were filled with violence, pain and fear. Prevention and protection for animals will always be better cures for the problem of cruelty than prison sentences alone.
That is why OneKind also wants to see more effort put into developing community-based disposals, with supervision directed at changing the offending behaviour. We have repeatedly called for therapeutic, educational and anger management programmes, on a similar model to domestic violence initiatives, to make a positive difference and also address the known implications of animal abuse for the safety of humans. Coupled with automatic disqualification from owning animals – for life, in the most serious cases – our court system could make a real difference to animal protection in future.
OneKind will keep on pressing the Scottish Government to bring forward these reforms as soon as possible.