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In recent years, public issues such as live exports and the treatment of greyhounds and racehorses in the animal racing industry have caused a significant stir for law reform in favour of strengthening animal cruelty offences, to afford greater animal protection and animal welfare across a range of industries, including racing, hunting and agriculture. The strong voice of advocacy and lobby groups such as the RSPCA, the Animal Welfare League and PETA have all resulted in significant steps to protect the interests of animals, and animal rights, generally.

In NSW, animal cruelty offences are dealt with under both the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (NSW) and the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW). Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCAA), “animal” is given a broad definition and includes amphibians, birds, fish, mammals (other than humans), and reptiles.

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What is animal cruelty?

Animal cruelty is given a particular definition under section 4(2) of the PCAA, and an “act of cruelty” in that Act is defined to include:

“Any act or omission as a consequence of which the animal is unreasonably, unnecessarily or unjustifiably:

  1. beaten, kicked, killed, wounded, pinioned, mutilated, maimed, abused, tormented, tortured, terrified or infuriated,
  2. overloaded, overworked, overdriven, overridden or overused,
  3. exposed to excessive heat or excessive cold, or
  4. inflicted with pain.”

What is significant about this definition is that a person does not have to do a particular act to be found guilty of an act of cruelty. It is sufficient that a failure to take reasonable, necessary or justifiable steps to avoid any of the above circumstances will also constitute an offence and may result in criminal charges.

What is the offence for committing an act of cruelty?

Under section 5 of the PCAA, it is an offence to commit an act of cruelty (as defined above) upon an animal. This offence extends to a person in charge of an animal who authorises the commission of an act of cruelty, or a failure to, at any time:

  • take reasonable care, control or supervision of an animal to prevent the commission of an act of cruelty upon the animal,
  • where pain is being inflicted upon the animal, to take such reasonable steps as are necessary to alleviate the pain, or
  • where it is necessary for the animal to be provided with veterinary treatment, whether or not over a period of time, to provide it with that treatment.

An offence under section 5 carries with it a maximum penalty of 1 year imprisonment for an individual, or a fine of $550,000 for a body corporate.

There are also a range of supplementary offences under the PCAA which create criminal offences for a range of other acts towards animals, including:

  1. failing to provide an animal with food, drink or shelter,
  2. failing to provide confined animals with adequate exercise,
  3. unreasonable tethering of animals,
  4. abandonment of animals,
  5. performing certain procedures upon animals (docking of tails, cropping of ears, branding of the face of an animal, etc.),
  6. the use of poisons, certain electrical devices and spurs,
  7. baiting or conducting fighting,
  8. bull-fighting and trap-shooting and
  9. live baiting or coursing.

Generally, these offences carry a maximum penalty of 6 months imprisonment or a fine of $5,500, but can increase up to 2 years imprisonment (such as for live baiting or coursing).

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Serious animal cruelty charges

In addition to the above, the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) creates a number of “serious animal cruelty” offences that are designed to criminalise certain activities relating to the treatment of greyhounds. 

Under section 530 of the Crimes Act, a person may be charged with an offence of serious animal cruelty if they have tortured, beaten or committed some other serious act of cruelty upon an animal, and as a result of that cruelty, they have killed, seriously injured, or caused prolonged suffering to the animal. In addition, a prosecution case will need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person committed the acts with the intention of inflicting severe pain.

Note that under the Crimes Act, “animal” is defined in a more limited way than under the PCAA, and includes simply a “mammal, bird or reptile”.

This is the most serious animal law offence in NSW, and carries with it a severe maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment, or where the action was reckless, 3 years imprisonment. 

Various defences do exist to excuse certain activities, such as where an action that would otherwise constitute a criminal offence, was carried out under some authority conferred under another law (such as the Animal Research Act 1985 (NSW).

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Who can prosecute animal cruelty charges?

Under the PCAA, criminal charges for an act of cruelty are able to be brought not only by a police officer but also by animal welfare bodies such as the AWL or the RSPCA (similarly, in Victoria by the Animal Law Institute). 

These prosecutions can often be complex, and so if you require legal advice about your rights under criminal law, our experienced criminal defence lawyers are able to provide sound advice and make submissions on your behalf so that you can successfully defend yourself with confidence.

Disclaimer

The above is general legal information and should not be considered legal advice. You should speak with one of our family lawyers for legal advice tailored to your specific legal matter. The courts deal with matters on a case by case basis. It should also be noted that there may be court delays due to COVID-19.

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Frequently Asked Questions.

An animal cruelty charge can come into play where it is established that a person or corporate was involved in:

“Any act or omission as a consequence of which the animal is unreasonably, unnecessarily or unjustifiably:

  1. beaten, kicked, killed, wounded, pinioned, mutilated, maimed, abused, tormented, tortured, terrified or infuriated,
  2. overloaded, overworked, overdriven, overridden or overused,
  3. exposed to excessive heat or excessive cold, or
  4. inflicted with pain.”

An offence under section 5 carries with it a maximum penalty of 1 year imprisonment for an individual, or a fine of $550,000 for a body corporate.

The law covers a person having or even not having to do a particular act to be found guilty of an act of cruelty. It is sufficient that a failure to take reasonable, necessary or justifiable steps to avoid any of the above circumstances will also constitute an offence and may result in criminal charges.

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