A great, informative article kindly written for my blog by Chris Salmon Director of Quittance Legal Services about the law around dog bites.
Dog bites - A legal perspective
Any animal can sometimes become fearful and aggressive if they are placed in an unfamiliar, high-stress situation. Owners often expect the worst following an incident involving their dog, fearing serious legal consequences.
Fortunately, there is much that an owner can do, both before and after an incident, to protect their dog and ensure a better outcome for everyone involved.
Are dog bites common?
Although the tabloids might suggest otherwise, serious incidents involving dogs are rare.
Research by the British Medical Journal and by the Royal College of Surgeons has found that dog bite-related injuries have risen in recent years, but the reports also suggest that people may simply be becoming more likely to seek medical attention following a bite.
Dogs and UK law
Laws concerning dogs and dog attacks have been on the statute books for many centuries. Dating back to the 800s, Saxon laws included a fine of six shillings against the owner “if a dog bite or tear a man”, with higher fines “if the dog do more misdeeds”.
Dog-related legislation is often collectively referred to as ‘the Dogs Act’. Key legislation includes the Dogs Act 1871, the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Animals Act 1971.
The Dogs Act 1871
This Act is the first piece of modern law concerning dogs and dog ownership in the UK. Parts of the Act are still in force today, and give local authorities the power to take action in relation to ‘dangerous’ dogs, and to issue fines.
Dangerous Dogs Act 1991
This controversial piece of legislation was hurriedly passed after a series of serious attacks involving dogs. Under the 1991 Act, it became a criminal offence for a dog to be ‘dangerously out of control’ in public. The definition of ‘dangerously out of control’ encompasses any injury to a person or another animal, and also where a dog’s behaviour causes someone to reasonably fear they could be injured.
When the legislation was drafted, certain breeds of dog were alleged to be particularly dangerous. Breed-specific legislation (BSL) was included in the Act, banning some breeds and restricting the ownership of others.
Under the Act, animals that were suspected to be a banned breed, or crossed with a banned breed, can be confiscated and destroyed. Research has since challenged some of the assumptions regarding ‘dangerous’ breeds, but the BSL remains in force.
In 2014, the 1991 Act was amended to also apply to incidents on private property.
Animals Act 1971
The Animals Act makes animal owners liable to be sued for injury or property damage caused by their pets or livestock. Under common law, the principle of negligence already existed so that negligent owners would be liable for the behaviour of their animals. The Act may extend this liability to incidents where the owner was not necessarily negligent.
This Act is also controversial, albeit for more mundane reasons. Judges have criticised the wording of the Act, and it has been interpreted in a variety of ways.
What could happen if your dog bites someone?
If your dog becomes stressed or aggressive and injuries someone, the police or the local authority are empowered to take action. In practice, however, the consequences for a minor incident are unlikely to be serious and no official action may be taken.
In more serious cases, a range of penalties could be employed. The authorities may:
Issue a fine
Issue a control order (banning your dog from certain places, or requiring a lead or muzzle to be worn in public)
Ban you from owning a dog
Confiscate or destroy the animal
In rare and very serious cases, a short custodial sentence could be issued.
Although these outcomes are serious, the authorities are usually reluctant to apply such severe sanctions. Mitigating circumstances will be considered, and enforcement of the rules varies across the country. The penalty for an attack is likely to be reduced, or waived completely, if any of the following apply:
The animal was provoked
The owner issued a warning to the injured party, and the warning was ignored
The injured party put themselves in danger when the animal was clearly distressed
Neither the dog nor the owner have any history of aggressive behaviour
The characteristics of the injured person are also considered. For example, an adult would be expected to adhere to an owner’s warning and recognise when a dog was being aggressive, whereas a child may not be expected to understand the same risks.
Could you be sued?
Regardless or whether official action is taken, it may be possible for an owner to be sued by someone that their dog has injured.
Chris Salmon, Director of Quittance Legal Services commented, “Whether or not a claim for compensation will succeed will depend on the facts of the individual case. In cases where the injuries are relatively minor, and do not leave visible scars, the amount of compensation awarded is likely to be low. Many solicitors will only agree to take on dog bite cases where the injuries are serious.”
“It will often be harder for the injured party to win their claim if the owner can prove that they took reasonable steps to reduce the risk of injury, such as by giving warnings or keeping their dog on a lead, and where there is evidence that the injured person provoked the animal or put themselves in danger.”
Prevention and insurance
If you have any concerns regarding your dog’s behaviour, you should seek the advice of a specialist dog trainer or animal behaviourist. It is particularly important to seek help following an incident involving your dog, as penalties are generally more severe where an animal has a ‘history’ of attacks.
You should consider checking your pet insurance to see what legal cover, if any, is provided. Not all policies include coverage for legal costs and compensation in the event of an incident. If you are sued, although the compensation award itself may be relatively small, the legal costs can quickly mount up.
You must also check the small print of your policy to understand what procedure to follow after an attack. Some policies will be void if, for example, you admit responsibility for the attack at the scene. Your insurer may also require you to notify them immediately following an incident.
It is impossible to completely remove the risk of an incident occurring. Animals can be unpredictable, as can people, and particularly children. Taking proactive steps to protect you and your dog from unforeseen circumstances, including training and suitable insurance coverage, will help you to reduce the risk of an attack and to help ensure the best outcome for all sides if an incident does occur.