Since the death of Jade Lomas-Anderson last week certain aspects of the media have decided to focus their coverage on the fact that it looks likely the dogs owner will "get away with it". This is because (as we have dealt with in numerous news stories on this site over the last year) the Dangerous Dog Act is a terribly drafted piece of legislation. Unless the dog is of one of 4 specific breeds or the attack takes place by a dog out of control in a public place the Act does not apply and as a result the owner will not be prosecuted. The government have decided that the answer is to change the law so that attacks on private property are included. They have also stated that all dog must be "chipped" with a £500 fine if they are not. That change in the law is likely to be in place by 2016. With 4000 estimated dog attacks a year that means that the likelihood is that they'll be an awful lot of irresponsible dog owners who will have "got away with it" before the change in law comes in. So the government should be acting sooner of that there is no doubt but is there more that they can do as well? The answer from legal professionals, the RSPCA and many others is a resounding yes. While the fact that the scope of the Dangerous Dogs Act will be widened is welcomed the general feeling is that the government should be looking to prevent these attacks from ever happening rather then looking at how to punish the owners after the event. Yes, seeing an irresponsible dog owner punished gives victims a sense of satisfaction but I am sure that if you asked any dog bite victim they would much prefer not to have been bitten in the first place and that is the approach the law should take. The fact that dogs must be chipped is neither here not there. More often then not the dog owner is known in any event and yet the attack still happens. It doesn't seem to be the answer to the problem being faced. So what more could be done? Reading the press coverage on Jade's death it is reported that the owner had admitted to friends that she was "wary" of the dogs and that neighbours and postmen were terrified of being attacked. The dogs were seemingly a known problem and no one seems particularly surprised that they ended up attacking in the manner they did. It is possible therefore that if there were laws in place which would have allowed authorities to take action as soon as they were notified of a potential dangerous dog then steps could have been put in place to prevent the attack. In November 2012 the Welsh Government’s Control of Dogs Bill consultation began. Their proposed law change aims to deal with dangerous dogs in three ways:

  1. By extending the scope of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to make it an offence for a dog to be dangerously out of control anywhere in Wales, including on private property;
  2. Amending the Dangerous Dogs Act to make it an offence for a dog to attack certain other animals; and
  3. Making provision for local authorities to serve Dog Control Notices (DCNs) as a preventive measure and encouraging more responsible dog ownership through training.

The Bill is similar to Scotland's Control of Dogs (Scotland) Act 2010. It is the third provision which lifts both the Scottish and Welsh law above that being considered in England. The use of a preventative approach is one that the Kennel Club and British Veterinary Association lobbied for and it is the one which will hopefully lead to dog attacks being reduced. It recognises that the problem is not dangerous dogs but irresponsible owners. By ensuring the dogs are properly trained and by being able to control the ownership of the dogs in the first place the law is heading in the right direction. From a legal point of view even the Welsh and Scottish changes don't go quite far enough and leave the victim out in the cold should they be unfortunate enough to suffer as a result of a dog attack. For the postman who has to miss time off work and loses his earnings or the child left scarred it is probably little comfort that the dog owner has been punished in some way. The victim is still out of pocket or still carrying the scars of the attack and while the law which allows a victim to bring a dog bite claim is in the victim's favour the fact remains that unless the dog owner is insured there is little chance of any compensation being recovered. If it is accepted that driving a car is dangerous and as a result insurance is compulsory why shouldn't that be the case for something as potential dangerous as a dog? I suspect that the government's reluctance to potentially control dog ownership and make insurance compulsory is two fold. Governments currently have a fear of passing any law which can be reported by the press as making the UK a "Nanny State." If a law was passed restricting or controlling dog ownership then surely this great "nation of dog lovers" would be appalled and even if they weren't the press would tell them they should be. With regard to compulsory insurance the view of the government must be that insurance is only necessary so that people can make a personal injury claim and as we currently have a government who seem to have taken it upon themselves to destroy the mythical "compensation culture" once and for all the possibility of passing a law which would be seen to make it easier to bring a claim and recover compensation must be at the very bottom of their long "to do" list. So dog bite victims look like being left the victims in all of this. The criticism of the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act was that it was a knee jerk reaction to media stories about dog attacks at the time and as it was rushed it wasn’t thought through and it didn’t go far enough. Its 20 years later and the headlines are just as lurid and dog attacks still as shocking but the likelihood is that we’re going to be left with a law that will offer little by way of protection or prevention and is just as useless as what it was meant to replace. It allows a government to say they’re dealing with a problem and it will give the papers an opportunity to crow when a dog owner gets punished but other then that its just more of the same. James McNally is a partner at Slee Blackwell Solicitors and a specialist in Dog Bite Claims. He can be contacted on 08081391601 or at james.mcnally@sleeblackwell.co.uk

Is punishment really the answer to our dog bite problems?
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