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The Necessity of Pet Theft Reform – Because a Dog is a Man’s Best Friend by Josephine Burnett

Under the current law, no distinction is made between the theft of pets and the theft of possessions. Both are treated the same, meaning that in the eyes of the law, pets are considered as little more than inanimate objects. With an ever-growing market for the selling and breeding of ‘designer’ pooches, as well as a continued market for dog fighting, incidents of pet theft are on the rise. However, very few of those incidents ever make it to court, and when they do, sentences for the few convicted are based primarily on the animal’s financial value. But as a nation of animal lovers, we know that losing a pet is about far more than just money.

This blog explores the possible changes that could be made to the legal framework relating to the theft of animals.

Some Statistics

Statistics quoted in Parliament suggest that the number of reported dog thefts was 14% higher in 2016 than in 2015, and rose a further 6.8% in 2017 (to 1,909 thefts). This equates to five dogs being stolen each day.

It is further reported that of the 1,678 recorded pet thefts in 2017, only 2% resulted in someone being charged. In fact, on average fewer than 5% of cases end in conviction – and those who are convicted typically receive a Community Order or a fine, rather than a custodial sentence.

As a result, not only do pet thieves know that the chance of being caught is minimal, they also know that even if caught they are unlikely to go to prison, and accordingly face no deterrence.

The Proposed Changes

The Pets (Theft) Bill underwent its first reading in the House of Commons on 3 July 2018. Drafted by Professor John Cooper QC, legal adviser to the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, the Bill was introduced after more than 100,000 people signed a petition calling for pet theft to be made a crime in its own right.

The Bill creates a new, separate criminal offence of pet theft, incorporating amendments into the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Animal Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. The Bill has received cross-party backing; however, the date for its second reading is yet to be announced.

Under the current wording of the Bill, a ‘pet’ is defined as an animal that “provides companionship or assistance to any human being”. (See more on this below). In line with the wording of the Theft Act 1968, the offence of pet theft is defined as the “[dishonest appropriation] of a pet belonging to another person with the intention of permanently depriving that other person of it”.

If convicted of the offence of pet theft, the Bill makes provision for a custodial sentence between 51 weeks to two years imprisonment, a fine, or both.

The Bill also requires a judge to consider, when sentencing the offender, the emotional harm caused by the theft – to both the pet and the owner. In particular, it provides that the following aggravating factors must be taken into account:

  • whether the theft caused fear, alarm or distress to the pet, the owner of the pet, or another person associated with the pet; and
  • whether the theft was for the purposes of commercial gain.

The requirement to consider any emotional harm caused to the pet itself is congruent with the Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Animal Sentience) Bill 2017, which would ensure that animals are defined in UK law as sentient beings. Regrettably, this sentience Bill is currently on hold, and despite recent confirmation of the Government’s “[commitment] to introducing legislative requirements relating to animal sentience”, it remains to be seen when such legislation will be enacted.

Defining a ‘Pet’ – Feelings or Finances? Companionship or Pleasure?

The Bill, as introduced, defines a pet as an animal which “provides companionship or assistance to any human being”. The current dictionary definition of “companionship” is “a feeling of fellowship or friendship”. Arguably, in order for an animal to provide companionship, it may be expected that the animal would have to ‘give something back’, in the way that dogs (and some cats) do. But what about slightly less conventional pets? For example, could it be argued that a rare breed, hugely valuable pet koi carp provides company?  And what about a goldfish – which costs next to nothing and cannot plausibly be said to provide friendship? Seemingly, both would fall at the first hurdle, preventing charges from being brought under the Pets (Theft) Act.

Of course, both could instead be prosecuted under the existing Theft Act, although bringing charges for the theft of a koi carp would likely have a much greater chance of succeeding, given its high value and the corresponding ‘public interest’ argument in holding the perpetrators to account. Compare this, however, to the goldfish example, which is unlikely to pass the ‘public interest’ test, despite the emotional damage that may be caused to its owner (and maybe even the fish itself).

If the aim of the Pets (Theft) Bill is to take the focus away from an animal’s financial value, and to instead focus on ‘feelings’ (of either the pet or its owners), there is a danger that the existing definition is too narrow for the Bill to have any significant impact outside the field of dog theft. In order to capture the wide array of animals kept as pets, this definition would need further work. Perhaps it is as simple as including the word “pleasure” as part of the definition, in line with the dictionary definition of the word ‘pet’. Alternatively, a “pet” could be defined with reference to a Schedule of commonly kept pets. Failure to revisit this definition could risk effectively limiting the Bill’s coverage to the theft of dogs and (friendly) cats.

Alternatives

If the Bill doesn’t receive Parliamentary backing, could the Sentencing Guidelines instead be amended to include a separate category for theft of a sentient or companion animal?

At present, the Sentencing Guidelines require judges to consider whether the offence falls into one of four categories, each of which are determined only by the financial value of the stolen goods. The theft of goods (i.e. pets) valued at under £500 can only be classed as a Category 4 offence, the sentences for which vary from discharge to 36 weeks custody (depending on the offender’s culpability). The theft of pets valued at over £500 (and under £10,000) will be classed as a Category 3 offence, where the sentences range from a ‘Band C’ fine to 2 years custody (again depending on culpability). However, in practice, those convicted of pet theft are rarely given a custodial sentence.

Those opposing the Bill, including Mr Eustice MP (former Defra Minister), claim that the latest Sentencing Guidelines reflect incidents of theft that cause “emotional distress to the victim”, and that accordingly, pet theft can and does fall in the category of offences that will carry a jail sentence.

However, the bottom line is that the financial value of the stolen goods remains the key consideration when determining whether or not to impose a custodial sentence. It is therefore hoped that, failing the introduction of specific legislation to create a discrete offence of pet theft, a new category is created to consider the theft of a sentient or companion animal, and that the range of sentences will be more reflective of the emotional distress caused by this crime – not just to pet owners, but to the animals themselves.

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