The law of theft is concerned with the taking of another person’s “property” and treating it, outright, as their own. There is not, however, a specific offence of theft of pets.
At present, pets are considered merely as (what we call in law) “choses in possession” – they are a form of tangible property (a chattel), owned by a person, for which value is attached. Given their status as a chattel, pets can, of course, be owned and thus can be stolen. Putting it simply, pets are a form of “property”. A theft of a pet is therefore charged in accordance with s 1 of the Theft Act 1968, and an individual convicted of the offence would be sentenced accordingly.
For many years, there has been a call for a pet-specific offence of theft, on account that the law does not sufficiently recognise the effect that theft of a pet has on an individual. In July 2018, Conservative MP for Aberdeen South, Ross Thomson, introduced a Private Members’ Bill in the House of Commons that would create a specific offence of theft of pets. The Pets (Theft) Bill 2017–19 would have created a pet-specific offence of theft with certain post-conviction powers attached to such offences following an online petition signed by over 100,000 members of the public.
Losing a pet can tear the heart out of a family—and that is what the law should, but does not, recognise.
Presenting the Bill in the House of Commons, Ross Thomson MP used the sentencing powers available to the courts as the primary reason for the introduction of a new, pet-specific offence.
He commented, “Victims of pet theft have not just lost a financial asset; they have lost a much-loved member of the family. Pet theft can be a truly devastating and distressing experience. Losing a pet can tear the heart out of a family—and that is what the law should, but does not, recognise.”(HC Deb 3 July 2018, vol 644, col 204).
Sentencing of theft offences is determined in accordance with the Definitive Guidelines for Theft Offences(Sentencing Council, 2015). Such Guidelines prescribe that the ‘category’ of offence is determined by the value of the goods stolen and any additional harm suffered by the victim or others. In the case of pets, it is undeniable that the loss of a pet, through theft, is of serious emotional distress. Indeed, the Sentencing Council identifies that the goods in question may have ‘substantial value to the loser – regardless of monetary worth’. In addition, the economic value of pets can be quite diverse, with pedigree dog breeds available on the market for thousands of pounds.
The maximum sentence of seven years is unlikely ever to be reached in the case of pets given the requirement for a high value of goods (£10,000–£100,000) or a very high value of goods (above £100,000).
Using the factors present in the Definitive Guidelines, the majority of cases of pet theft would likely fall within Category 4 (medium value goods (up to £500) and little or no significant additional harm to the victim or others) or Category 3 (medium value goods (£500 to £10,000) and no significant additional harm, or low value goods with significant additional harm to the victim or others). With these categories in mind, the likely sentence could range from two years’ imprisonment (in serious cases of its kind) to a low level fine or community order. The maximum sentence of seven years is unlikely ever to be reached in the case of pets given the requirement for a high value of goods (£10,000–£100,000) or a very high value of goods (above £100,000).
It is certainly debatable as to what effect a pet-specific offence will have on the present situation. The Definitive Guidelines do, at present, cater for the emotional distress caused by the loss of the goods in question. The Honourable Member for Aberdeen South had stated that the Bill would make it so that emotional distress will feature more prominently in the sentencing decision. It would have been interesting to see how such distress was quantified on a larger scale for the purpose of sentencing.
Whatever the reason, it can be said that there is a lacuna in the law regarding pet theft.
A larger issue, however, is that most cases of pet theft do not proceed to criminal proceedings. This may either be because they are not investigated or because an offence is not charged, following investigation. No reason or substance is clear as to why this is the case, however. Perhaps it is so given the lack of evidential sufficiency in the prospect of a conviction, or perhaps the prosecuting bodies do not consider such matters serious enough to justify prosecution. Whatever the reason, it can be said that there is a lacuna in the law regarding pet theft.
The issue becomes, therefore: how is the lacuna filled? Is there a legislative intervention required in the investigation and prosecution of these offences (to make it clear that these offences are serious)? Is there a need for the Sentencing Guidelines to be amended to place more emphasis on the loss of a pet? It remains doubtful that the issue will be resolved any time soon. The Bill introduced by Ross Thomson MP did not proceed past its second reading and it seems doubtful that any forthcoming Bill will achieve any greater success (to the disappointment of many).
This is a guest essay by Mark Thomas, Senior Lecturer in Law at Nottingham Law School. Want to write for us? Visit www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk/essay-submission or email firstname.lastname@example.org