ACT Introduces "Australian First" Bill To Recognise Animal Sentience; Increase Penalties For Offences

Friday 24 May 2019 @ 1.39 p.m. | Crime | Torts, Damages & Civil Liability | Trade & Commerce

On 16 May 2019 the Animal Welfare Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 (ACT) (the Bill) was introduced into the ACT Assembly by the ACT Minister for City Services, Chris Steel MLA (the Minister). In a media release the Minister has said that the Bill is "an Australian first" because, apart from introducing a broad range of reforms to strengthen animal welfare laws, the Bill recognises animals as sentient beings.

In describing the Bill the Minister has said that:

". . . the legislation will ensure that the ACT has best-practice, contemporary and effective animal welfare laws. . . . The ACT community strongly values animals and they deserve to have a quality of life that reflects that intrinsic value, . . The science tells us that animals are sentient, they feel emotion and pain, and we are seeking to recognise that in law. People have duty to care for the mental and the physical welfare of the animals in their care, and this legislation will strengthen protections for the welfare of animals.”

The Bill went through an extensive exposure draft process, being publicly released for comment on 13 December 2018 with consultation closing on 7 February 2019. Over the period of consultation 120 individuals and 30 businesses and organisations provided submissions, including organisations like the RSPCA and assistance animal organisations.

General Purposes of the Bill

In broad terms, the Bill is intended to deliver comprehensive amendments to the Animal Welfare Act 1992 (45 of 1992) (ACT) and its principal regulations, as well as minor amendments to the Domestic Animals Act 2000 (86 of 2000) (ACT) and its principal regulations. As well the Bill proposes consequential amendments to the Discrimination Act 1991 (81 of 1991) (ACT) , Magistrates Court (Animal Welfare Infringement Notices) Regulation 2014 (3 of 2014) (ACT) and the Magistrates Court (Domestic Animals Infringement Notices) Regulation 2005 (29 of 2005). In his presentation speech, the Minister indicated that the Bill is seeking to ensure that the ACT has the best-practices, a contemporary and effective regulatory system that protects and promotes the welfare of animals, prevents and deters cruelty to animals and responds appropriately to animal welfare abuses.

Broadly, the Bill is presented as seeking to improve the ACT legislative framework by making a number of amendments that fit within the overall objective of the new legislative framework which is to:

  • recognise animals are sentient beings;
  • ensure animals are shown compassion and have an acceptable quality of life;
  • protect and promote animal welfare;
  • prevent and deter cruelty to animals; and
  • respond appropriately to animal welfare offences.

Cruelty Offences and Duty of Care

The new Bill proposes a range of new, specific offences for failing to take appropriate care of an animal. The new offences range from failure to provide an animal with water or shelter through to abandoning an animal. Offences for hitting or kicking an animal are also covered. 

On the penalties front, the penalties for "cruelty" and "aggravated cruelty" have been toughened. Ownership bans can be enforced and new powers are proposed in the Bill to seize animals. A new offence is proposed to be introduced by the Bill for confining a dog for 24 hours without providing exercise for the animal. The new offence is qualified in that it does not apply to someone who keeps their dog in their yard, house or apartment and does not have the opportunity to walk them every day - the offence is intended to apply in situations where, for example, a dog is tied to a pole for days on end, or is kept in a cage where it cannot move.

Under the Bill an offence is also proposed to be created where a person(s) take part in animal fighting or other violent activities, like pig-dogging, where an animal is used to torture or kill another animal. 

On the question of penalties and offences the Minister has said:

“One of the key features of the Bill is a proportionate and enforceable regulatory framework with stronger penalties and enforcement powers. Importantly, the Bill proposes an escalating enforcement framework that will allow our inspectors and the RSPCA to issue on-the-spot fines for more minor duty-of-care or cruelty offences in addition to the existing serious offences.”

Licencing of Pet Businesses

Under the new Bill it is proposed that pet businesses, including pet shops and boarding kennels, be required to be licensed under the new laws, six months after the Bill is passed. A measure seen by the Minister as also enabling the ACT Government to take further steps to stamp out illegal breeding and puppy farming and further promote animal welfare.

Assistance Animals

The Bill proposes for the first time in the ACT, a regulatory framework for "assistance animals". The regulatory framework will deal with the recognition and training of assistance animals and right of access of assistance or service animals to public places and premises.

Reaction and Comment

In an article in the Canberra Times, Peter Brewer indicates that one of the key reactions has been to the severity of some of the penalties proposed by the Bill. Examples given are 

  • anyone who pretends their dog is a registered assistance dog will attract a $3,200 fine;
  • using a sick or injured animal for breeding will be an offence and this will also include "unfit" animals placed on show; and
  • if a person is in charge of a petting zoo and uses an animal distressed by human contact, the owner may be fined up to $8000.

The ACT opposition has been reported as saying that the Bill over-reaches and opposition spokeswoman Nicole Lawder is quoted as saying:

"Canberrans adore their animals and overwhelmingly care for them as much-loved members of the family, . . . It appears elements of these new, unwarranted laws target responsible, animal-loving pet owners, effectively turning them into criminals."

In its article on the Bill by Elise Scott, Tahlia Roy and Niki Burnside, the ABC News has indicated that the concept of animal sentience could have broader implications. Pointing to the fact that the ACT adheres to the national code of practice in culling animals, including in kangaroo culling, which is supported by the RSPCA and cites veterinarian expertise as indicating that the recognition of sentience was a good place to start enforcing animal rights. However, the same veterinarian expertise also points out that is important to ". . . clearly define which animals were recognised as sentient" as the concept could get in the way of the economy.

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