Concerns over the lack of prison sentences for Northern Ireland’s animal abusers

Courts have been urged to take strict action against animal cruelty.

In recent years 28 prison sentences over animal cruelty offenses have been imposed by the courts of Northern Ireland, while thousands of violations of animal welfare laws were detected by councils in the same period.

Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) handles welfare complaints regarding farm animals, while local councils handle site visits related to non-farm animals—in other words, domestic pets.

The latest available data for 2020 shows that DAERA conducted 63 inspections related to farm animal welfare following complaints during the year and detected 25 violations of the Animal Welfare Act. Since 2016, the department has conducted 558 inspections and detected 102 violations of the law.

Meanwhile, the councils received 4,363 complaints about non-farm animal welfare, 6,107 site visits and detected 4,181 violations of the animal welfare law in 2020.

Since 2016, councils have received 25,100 of these complaints, conducted 42,834 inspections and detected 23,327 violations of animal welfare laws.

From 2016 to 2020, Justice Department statistics show that only 28 custodial sentences related to animal welfare have been served in Northern Ireland.

SDLP legislator Dolores Kelly said there is a clear discrepancy between the number of incidents where people have violated the Animal Welfare Act and the number of custodial sentences served.

“While one would not expect every violation to result in a custodial sentence, there were 4,181 violations of the Act in 2020, with only seven sentenced to prison terms,” she said.

“The lack of custodial sentences being issued sends a clear message about how seriously our justice system takes animal abuse. We have seen cases in recent years where people have abused and neglected animals in the most despicable ways possible. and still escaped from prison. We cannot allow animals to endure horrific ordeals, because the offender gets nothing but a slap on the wrist.

“If we are going to reduce the thousands of animal abuse incidents that are recorded every year then we need to take this issue seriously. People need to understand that if they are going to neglect or misbehave with an animal. If found guilty they will have to face the consequences. We have strict punishment guidelines in the answer, but we have to see that these are used by the judiciary against anyone who abuses animals to send a clear message that This is not going to be tolerated.

“If we see that all islands are being punished severely with the Animal Cruelty Register, I believe we have the potential to seriously reduce the number of incidents that happen each year.”

Judges are bound by sentencing guidelines and must take into account mitigating circumstances, such as early guilty pleas, cooperation with the police and remorse, as well as aggravating factors.

DAERA has been contacted for comment.

This comes after news emerged that the work of creating a register of people convicted of animal cruelty offenses has come a step closer.

For years, animal welfare charities and other stakeholders have been demanding a register of people who have been found to have abused an animal—as is the case for sex offenders—in order to prevent them from owning the animal.

Back in 2016, Belfast City Council passed a resolution calling for the creation of such a register, although agitations on the issue have only occurred in the past year.

In response to a question from the Assembly, DAERA Minister Edwin Poots said: “Officials are also reviewing the effectiveness and effectiveness of similar registers already operating elsewhere. I urged my officials to take these efforts forward and I have been requested to develop proposals on possible next steps. I hope to be in a position to consider the way forward with regard to a register at the beginning of the new year.”