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What is the UK law on dogs attacking animals?

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Out of control dog attacks seal

I’m prompted to write this article because of a well publicised story in The Times newspaper today about a QC’s dog savaging a beloved local seal who the local residents called Freddie Mercury. You may know this but a QC is a senior barrister able to earn £1,000 an hour. It stands for “Queen’s Counsel”. The title began in the era of Queen Elizabeth I.

QCs are invariably intelligent, well educated people. In this instance the story concerns a 49-year-old female QC whose name is Rebecca Sabben-Clare, 49. She was out walking her dog along the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge. It was a sunny day and a photographer was photographing Freddie Mercury, the seal, who had become a feature in the area.

Out of control dog attacks seal

Out of control dog attacks seal. Photo: Duncan Phillips.

Sabben-Clare had allowed her dog to run around off the lead. He made a beeline for the seal and attacked it. It was a very savage attack according to the photographer. Sabben-Clare was unable to get her dog off the seal. In the ensuing attack the seal was badly injured. The photographer pulled the dog off and a group of three people helped to seal afterwards, one of them calling, I believe, an animal hospital, perhaps the RSPCA.

A veterinarian at South Essex Wildlife Hospital, Tilbury, discovered that the seal had suffered a broken bone, a dislocated flipper and damage to joints, ligaments and nerves. It was decided to euthanise the seal. The dog was also euthanised after consultations with specialists. So, two animals lost their lives because of the carelessness of a highly educated woman working in the legal profession who should know better.

So what does the law say about a dog attacking an animal like this? It is against the law to let a dog be dangerously out of control in the UK, (1) in a public place or (2) in a private place such as a neighbour’s house or garden, or (3) in the owner’s home.

A dog is considered to be dangerously out of control if it (1) injures someone and (2) makes someone worried that it might injure them. And thirdly, a court might decide that a dog is dangerously out of control if (1) it attacks someone’s animal and/or (2) the owner of an animal thinks they could be injured if they try to stop a dog attacking their animal.”

If a prosecution is started and a conviction made against the dog’s owner they can end up with an unlimited fine or be jailed for up to 6 months or both.

In this instance Scotland Yard said that they want to speak to the owner of the dog and have appealed for witnesses. The Times tried to reach Sabben Clare for comment last night but failed. The criteria listed above does not quite sit on all fours with this incident because the seal is a wild animal but there’s no doubt that the dog was out of control and it is reasonable to presume that somebody might have been worried that it might injure them. The dog did not attack someone’s animal and this may be a weakness in a potential prosecution.

I would have thought that the police would be reluctant to prosecute this woman because a criminal conviction might damage her career. She is described on the website of the chambers where she works as being a woman of “excellent judgement”. I’m afraid in this instance her judgement failed her.

The QC is ‘heartbroken’ at the event and has apologised and said that she is an animal lover. She admits that she made a mistake in allowing her dog off the lead. She said that the RSPCA have told her that no offence was committed. She also said that she has tried to contact the police repeatedly in response to the police statement that they wished to interview her. She said that the police have not contacted her.

“As an animal lover, I fully understand the dismay that has been expressed. I apologise unreservedly for what happened. In hindsight I wish, of course, that the dog had been on a lead but at the time that did not seem necessary.”

This is a Twitter feed of the incident. Sometimes these turn into a link to Twitter!: