Animal welfare prosecutions reported by the Scottish SPCA: 2011-2019

Findings of analysis of animal welfare case data collected by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.



The Scottish Government have pledged improvements to animal welfare as part of the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Programme for Government.[1] Measures to achieve this include the establishment of an Animal Welfare Commission consisting of a panel of experts responsible for providing advice on issues of animal welfare, and a commitment to increase maximum penalties for some of the most serious animal welfare offences. The latter of these will involve the amendment of existing legislation for animal welfare, with a particular focus on Part 2 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006.[2]

Part 2 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 – ( the ‘2006 Act’), is concerned with the welfare of ‘protected’ animals – those domesticated in the British Isles, under the control of man or not living in a wild state. The 2006 Act makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to a protected animal and places a duty of care on persons to ensure the welfare of animals they are responsible for. A number of offences for the prevention of harm and the promotion of welfare, relating to abandonment, licensing, the sale of animals and animal fighting are covered, and provisions are made for Scottish Ministers and local authorities to appoint ‘inspectors’ to use the powers given within the 2006 Act, such as the serving of a care notice to give individuals a time-limited opportunity to rectify a situation where animal welfare standards are not met, or for the removal or disposal of animals.

On 30 September 2019 the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Roseanna Cunningham MSP, introduced the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill to raise the maximum penalties for some of the most serious offences involving animal welfare in Scotland.[3] A similar Bill for legislation covering animal welfare offences in England and Wales[4] has been introduced, and in Northern Ireland amendments have already been implemented following a review carried out by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Justice.[5]

At the time of writing (January 2020), offences covered by the 2006 Act in Scotland can be tried through summary proceedings only, with maximum penalties for offences causing unnecessary suffering and concerning animal fighting up to 12 months in prison and a fine of up to £20,000 or both. For all other offences covered by the 2006 Act, the maximum penalties are set as up to 6 months in prison and a fine of up to £5,000 or both. The proposed changes to the 2006 Act would make the most serious offences of causing unnecessary suffering and animal fighting triable each way – by summary or solemn proceedings, and increase the maximum available penalties up to 5 years in prison, and an unlimited fine or both. Penalties for all other offences covered by the 2006 Act are due to remain as they are, although some additional changes have been proposed to allow for quicker rehoming of animals removed as a result of proceedings from the 2006 Act, the introduction of fixed penalty notices for less serious offences and increased protections for service animals.

However, despite the proposed changes to legislation in Scotland, there is little publicly available information about the way in which the 2006 Act is used in its current form and the types of cases submitted to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (PF) and prosecuted through the Scottish courts. No official crime statistics in Scotland are routinely published at a level that would enable this to be established and it is difficult to determine the scope of and extent of penalties currently used. This makes evaluation of the legislation and future amendments more challenging. In addition, little is published about the individuals who commit such offences, making it difficult to develop evidence-based and cost effective methods of intervention and prevention.

Current knowledge surrounding animal welfare prosecutions

Animal welfare prosecutions in Scotland

In 2017 Battersea Dogs & Cats Home produced a report using data obtained from the Scottish Government Justice Analytical Services Division for convictions related to animal welfare covered by the 2006 Act (Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, 2017). Here, they report that 522 persons were convicted of such offences between the financial years of 2011-12 and 2015-16, with the majority of these related to unnecessary suffering (81%)[6], failures to ensure welfare (13.2%) and abandonment (4.8%). A small amount were also convicted for offences related to animal fights.

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (2017) claim that sentencing for animal welfare offences occurs ‘at the ceiling’ – that is, at the top end of the maximum penalties available, citing examples of several individuals sentenced to 9 or more months in prison over the five-year period (Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, 2017). However, the numbers here are small and do not account for the variation in maximum penalty amounts by offence, differing types of disposal or whether or not a guilty plea and resultant discount were applied. Therefore, although such figures can give some indication of these trends, without this level of detail it is difficult to establish to what extent maximum penalties are being applied for animal welfare offences prosecuted in the Scottish courts.

The Scottish Government Justice Analytical Services Division statistics cited in the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (2017) report are not publically available and reports of criminal proceedings in Scotland do not include figures specifically for animal welfare offences. However, these figures have been used by the Scottish Government when evaluating the financial impact of the aforementioned proposed amendment bill.[7]

The financial memorandum for the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill includes some basic information on penalties for convictions from two types of offence covered by the 2006 Act – unnecessary suffering (Section 19) and animal fights (Section 23). The memorandum reports the disposals used for these offences covering the past ten financial years (2008-09 to 2018-19), showing a total of 773 penalties from convictions in this period – all but three of these for offences covered by Section 19 (unnecessary suffering). However, there is limited detail on penalty amounts and no information is available on other penalties relevant to these specific types of offences (i.e. disqualification orders). In addition, these figures are limited in scope, covering only two of the offence types covered by the 2006 Act – albeit those considered the most serious and of most relevance for the proposed amendments.

Animal welfare prosecutions in England and Wales

Outside of Scotland, the Ministry of Justice produce statistics on criminal proceedings for England and Wales through their quarterly Criminal Justice System Statistics and more detailed publications annually.[8] Unlike Scotland, some aggregate level statistics are available on criminal proceedings for offences of ‘cruelty to animals’[9] – currently up to 2018,[10] broken down by offender characteristics such as age and gender, disposal types and average sentences.

An earlier version of these figures was used in a report by the Centre for Crime Prevention (Cuthbertson and Spencer, 2017) in conjunction with a Freedom of Information request submitted to the Ministry of Justice to provide further detail on the criminal histories of individuals cautioned or convicted for offences related to cruelty to animals. The report states that community sentences were the most frequent outcome for those convicted or cautioned for offences related to cruelty to animals between 2005 and 2016, representing just over a third (34.0%) of defendants.[11], Just under a quarter (23.8%) received a fine and 7.7% were given a custodial sentence. The average fine amount over this time was £307, and the average custodial sentence length to be 3.2 months. Of those convicted or cautioned for cruelty to animals between 2013 and 2015, 72.9% of these had at least one previous conviction or caution for any type of offence.

The Ministry of Justice statistics for England and Wales do give some indication of the ways in which animal welfare offences are prosecuted in some parts of the UK. However, within these statistics there is no detail surrounding disqualification orders, one of the key penalties for animal welfare offences. For legislation within England and Wales and Scotland, although these is no explicit presumption that such penalties be given during sentencing, there is a legal requirement that if they are not, the court gives a reason for doing so. This is likely to mean that in many cases such disposals are used. This information is needed to gain a fuller understanding of sentencing and use of penalties for animal welfare prosecutions.

The Ministry of Justice statistics for England and Wales use a very broad classification for offences related to cruelty to animals from a range of legislation, covering both domesticated and wild animals. This means that descriptive analysis cannot be carried out to look at this by specific legislation or types of offence. As such, it would not be possible to look at the different disposal types and penalty amounts where the maximum available amounts vary. For both England and Wales and Scotland where amendments to legislation surrounding penalties for specific offences are currently proposed, this data would therefore lack the necessary detail required to establish any kind of post legislative scrutiny.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) produce an annual report on the animal welfare cases they bring for private prosecution in England and Wales. In this report they provide a breakdown of their prosecution statistics, including detail on conviction rates, legislation and types of offence, plea, animals involved, disposal types – including disqualification orders, and appeals. In the most recent version from 2018, the RSPCA (2018) reported conviction rates of around 92% between 2016 and 2018, with the highest frequency of convictions for offences of causing unnecessary suffering. This is consistent with the findings from Scotland within the report from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (2017) - although, this was to a lesser degree, making up around 56% of convictions as opposed to the 81% of convictions reported by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (2017).

However, despite the similar wording of these types of offence, it is difficult to compare these figures due to the different pieces of legislation and systems applicable for England and Wales when compared to Scotland. In addition, these difficulties are further compounded by differences in time periods, methodologies (e.g. convictions vs persons) and scope – where the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (2017) and Centre for Crime Prevention (Cuthbertson and Spencer, 2017) reports represents all of those convicted[13] or cautioned[14] through the Scottish courts; the RSPCA prosecution statistics represent only those taken forward by themselves as private proceedings, so would therefore not include prosecutions by the Crown Office.

The Ministry of Justice and RSPCA prosecution statistics from England and Wales cannot be used as a reliable representation of cases prosecuted within the Scottish courts. Although they present much more detail surrounding animal welfare prosecutions than currently seen in Scotland, there are still many unanswered questions that may help to inform both Government and third-sector policy relating to animal welfare issues. For example, there is very limited information about the individuals who are prosecuted or the circumstances in which they live, the most common types of abuse animals are subjected to (e.g. physical abuse or neglect), or the typical penalty amounts applied in these cases beyond the broad aggregation across all types of animal welfare offences.

More generally, there is research on perpetrators of animal abuse but these tend to be limited to retrospective, self-report methods which may be subject to a self-disclosure bias (unwilling or inaccurate disclosure) (Arluke et al, 1999; Vaughn et al, 2009) and often not representative of the offending population as a whole (Alleyne and Parfitt, 2017). Administrative data from criminal proceedings like those seen in the reports cited above (Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, 2017; Cuthbertson and Spencer, 2017; RSPCA, 2018) can help mitigate some of these issues, provided they are available with sufficient detail to address some of the challenges previously discussed.

Lessons from outside the UK

Outside of the UK there is research using similar administrative data for such a purpose. For example, in the U.S. Arluke and Luke (1997) reviewed the records of all cases of physical abuse to animals prosecuted by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) from 1975-1996 – an animal welfare organisation that has legal powers of investigation for cases of alleged animal abuse in the state of Massachusetts (Arluke et al., 1999).

Arluke and Luke (1997) used this administrative data from the MSPCA to establish the prevalence and nature of animal welfare cases involving physical abuse prosecuted by the Society. They found that 44.4% of cases prosecuted for this type of abuse led to a guilty verdict, with fines the most common disposal type (33%). They found dogs to be the most common victims (57.8%), followed by cats (26.9%) – although this did vary by age, with adolescent offenders more likely to abuse cats than adult offenders. Those prosecuted were mostly men (96.6%) with an average age of 30 years – although over a quarter (27%) involved offenders under the age of 18. Although these findings are more than 20 years old and not generalizable to Scotland, they do help to demonstrate the potential for administrative data in this field.

In a more recent study, Garrett (2019) requested administrative data from all Common Pleas and Municipal/County Courts in Ohio for charges of animal abuse heard for a three-year period between April 2015 and April 2018. The aim of this was to compare the characteristics of these charges and the resulting outcomes before and after state-wide legislative change to enable offences for the most serious cases of animal abuse to be charged at felony level.[15]

Garett (2019) found an increase in the total amount of charges filed after the legislative change – including misdemeanours, postulating that this may have been due to the increased awareness of these offences as a result of the change. However, no significant differences were found in outcomes and penalty amounts for those convicted before or after the legislative change, and no significant differences were found in the rates of conviction or demographic characteristics of offenders. Overall, 39% of charges were found guilty, with an average of two charges per person. Offenders were mostly white (70%), with a mean age of 39 years and just over half (56%) were male.

This is a much smaller proportion of male offenders than seen in the MSPCA records previously cited (96.6%) (Arluke and Luke, 1997). However, this difference could be due to many different factors, including differences in the type of offence - Arluke and Luke (1997) focussed on physical abuse, whilst Garett (2019) looked at charges from all types of animal abuse. Previous studies have found gender differences by type of animal abuse, for example, in relation to animal hoarding (e.g. Gerbasi, 2004), and as such, there is a need for more nuanced investigations and interpretations of the role of gender in animal abuse (Alleyne and Parfitt, 2017; Gerbasi, 2004; Herzog, 2007).

The potential for administrative data for animal welfare offences in Scotland

Similar research may be possible in Scotland using administrative data from animal welfare cases before and after the implementation and amendment of the 2006 Act. Scotland’s largest animal welfare organisation, The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), have similar powers of investigations in animal welfare cases as the MSPCA and hold administrative data similar to that used by Arluke and Luke (1997) described above.

The Scottish SPCA are a specialist reporting agency to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (PF) in Scotland and trained staff within this organisation are given the role of inspectors as outlined in the provisions of the 2006 Act. They are a key stakeholder in matters of animal welfare and in particular where this involves the prosecution and prevention of animal abuse.

Despite the large amount of information that the Scottish SPCA collect, little use has thus far been made of this for research purposes. Yet, it is clear from research outside of Scotland, administrative data such as this could provide a rich source of information for extrapolating key findings on the prevalence and nature of animal welfare prosecutions in Scotland. This could be used to address some of the gaps in knowledge that presently exist in this area.

With this in mind, the Scottish SPCA and Scottish Government have worked together to produce this scoping report to establish what might be possible using the administrative data already collected by the Sottish SPCA. The report will provide an overview of headline figures from basic analysis of some of this data, outline recommendations for possible future research and suggests improvements to data collection and recording systems to enable optimal use.



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