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England and Wales

The UK has been a pioneer of animal protection laws. In 1822, it passed the world’s first legislation, a limited measure protecting cattle, and protection has progressively increased since then. This week Advocates for Animals’ David Thomas summarises the centrepiece legislation in England and Wales.

Protection now extends to animals in all sorts of situations – in the home, on farms, in entertainment, in the wild, during transportation and in laboratories. However, protection is piecemeal and is often limited by what is perceived to be in humankind’s interests. The law is no animal rights charter.

England and Wales

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 (AWA) covers vertebrate animals, essentially if they are of a domesticated species or under the control of humans. It therefore extends to farm animals, although they have separate legislation too. The authorities can extend protection to sentient invertebrates species.

There are two main offences in AWA. The first is causing unnecessary suffering, or allowing it to be caused. Section 4 sets out non-exhaustive criteria of what is meant by ‘unnecessary’, such as: could the suffering have been reduced or avoided; did it benefit the animal or protect a person, property or another animal; was it proportionate given its purpose; and ‘was the conduct … in all the circumstances that of a reasonably competent and humane person’? The offence covers omissions as well as positive acts.

Under section 9, a person commits an offence ‘if he does not take such steps as are reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure that the needs of an animal for which he is responsible are met to the extent required by good practice’. This creates a positive duty to look after animals properly, not simply a negative one not to cause them harm as with section 4.

An animal’s needs include a suitable environment and diet; ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns; housing with, or apart from, other animals; and protection from pain, suffering, injury or disease. Similarly to section 4, the lawful purpose for which an animal is kept or used is relevant. In practice, that may diminish the protection, because other legislation restricts the extent to which an animal can exhibit natural behaviour or be free from pain.

Section 9 does not prevent the humane destruction of an animal. Because the law regards animals as property, there is nothing to prevent an owner from (humanely) killing their perfectly healthy companion animal. Similarly, if someone deliberately injures someone else’s animal, as well as animal cruelty offences they commit criminal damage, a property offence.

The maximum term of imprisonment for these offences is 6 months, although the Government has committed to increasing this to five years. A fine may also be imposed. The court can deprive a convicted person of ownership of an animal and disqualify them from involvement with animals. The authorities are given various other powers, for example to seize animals in distress.

The authorities can also make regulations to promote welfare and issue codes of practice. Codes have been issued, for example, for farm animals, cats and dogs. Breach of a code is relevant to, but not determinative of, whether one of the main offences has been committed. In addition, the authorities can require particular activities involving animals to be licensed or registered. So, the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 require the keeping or training of animals for exhibition, the breeding of dogs, the boarding of cats and dogs and selling animals as companion animals to be licensed in certain circumstances.

AWA does not apply to anything lawfully done to animals in laboratories under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Similarly, it does not apply to ‘anything which occurs in the normal course of fishing’.

Scotland and Northern Ireland

Scotland and Northern Ireland are beyond the scope of this blog; however, in summary the nations have their own legislation, which is broadly similar to AWA. This is the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 and the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 respectively.

Getting Advice

This post is not legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you require legal advice on animal protection laws please contact

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