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A closer look at animal welfare law

'A practical approach to animal welfare law' is an informative book that stimulates the reader to question animal welfare standards in the UK

Animal welfare has been increasingly featured in the news over recent months; with the impending exit from the EU, there has been speculation about what the future of animal welfare in the UK will be. A practical approach to animal welfare law lays out the central legislature pertaining to animal welfare in the UK. The author of the book, Noël Sweeney, has been practising as a barrister for over 20 years, working in the field of animal law as well as criminal and human rights law.

The legislature includes the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (AWA), the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 (DDA) and the amendments made to this by the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 (ABCPA). The book breaks these Acts into their constituent parts, detailing how they are put into action to protect animals and prevent suffering, as well as giving examples of cases in which they have been used.

Readers are encouraged to consider the meaning of welfare and reminded that the term is used in relation to those who are more vulnerable in society. It highlights that for the laws to be effective, enforcement must be effective and owners and those who work with animals have a duty of care and responsibility towards them. The book covers areas such as mutilations, docking tails of dogs, poisoning and dog fighting. It delves into the nuances of the laws surrounding these actions as well as the conditions under which inspections can be made, the powers of the inspectors to destroy or take possession of the animal and arrest the abuser, the power to disqualify someone from owning an animal and when warrants can be obtained.

Sweeney often highlights issues with the AWA; he is of the opinion that the AWA is currently failing society and notes that ‘sentences are too low to prevent the prevalence and continuance of animal abuse’, an issue that is raised on several occasions. Sweeney does not pull his punches and expresses strong criticism of the recent governmental review of animal welfare legislature, citing that our sentencing is more lenient than at least 30 other European countries. He also discusses the need to balance the rights of the owner with the concern for animal welfare as the law protects all. However, he notes that animal abusers may proceed to abuse vulnerable people and so we must enforce these laws. From the start of the section on the DDA, Sweeney is highly critical of the Act, describing it as ‘draconian’ and expressing the belief that the issue is irresponsible owners rather than the ‘type’ of dog.

The amendments made by the ABCPA are also described. They go some way to improving the DDA, but not far enough in the opinion of Sweeney, and throughout he makes recommendations for reform.

The book caused me to contemplate my own experiences as a veterinarian, both on farms and in the small animal consultation room. It would be a valuable resource for young veterinarians and veterinary students who will undoubtedly be confronted with breaches of animal welfare throughout their career.

As some of the main defenders of animal welfare, it is truly important for veterinarians to understand the law supporting this. Many will be called to act as an expert witness at some point in their working life and it would be useful to appreciate the law prior to this.

The book would also be a useful reference for those working in animal rescue centres, inspectors such as RSPCA officers, and law students who may be called to draw on these statutes in their careers. Although it can be challenging to understand the legal language surrounding cases, this book helps the lay person to understand the finer detail of animal welfare law and its interpretation.

If this book has fulfilled its purpose, it will not only have increased the reader’s understanding of the law, but will also have raised many questions for the reader with regards to animal welfare in the UK. 

Ellen Hardy

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