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Dino - the wait goes on


THE OWNERS of a dog sentenced to death under the Dangerous Dogs Act for accidentally biting the owner of another dog are still anxiously awaiting the outcome of a legal appeal to the House of Lords to save their dog’s life. The appeal was lodged just after Christmas by well-known solicitor Trevor Cooper, who has been handling the case of five year-old GSD ‘Dino’ since his initial appeal against destruction.

The nightmare began for Dino’s owners Carol and Bryan Lamont in January 2001 when they were walking Dino in a local park near their home in Hunsbury, Northampton. They were accompanied by a neighbour and his two dogs. Dino and the other dogs were running free, and, as Carol Lamont told OUR DOGS, “They were acting playfully and certainly not causing any sort of trouble or behaving aggressively.”

The dogs ran off out of sight of the Lamonts and their friend for about 20 seconds, after which they heard loud barking and a woman’s scream. When they came upon the dogs, it appeared that they had become involved in a fight with a medium sized “terrier-type” dog. The other dog’s owner had attempted to separate the dogs and had been nipped on the hand.

“She said that Dino had bitten her, but we all agreed it was accidental,” says Carol. “We all leashed our dogs, apologised and went on our way. The owner seemed content to leave matters there and certainly gave us no indication that she would be taking the matter further.”

However, the woman did take matters further and complained to the police. The first the Lamonts knew of this was when they received a visit from a police officer who took a statement and advised them that they would probably be hearing further about the incident.

The Lamonts were duly charged under Section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 for ‘allowing’ their dog to be ‘dangerously out of control in a public place’ and for the aggravated offence of the dog biting the woman.

The decision to prosecute under the DDA was taken by the Crown Prosecution Service, although several Home Office circulars have issued guidelines to state that minor incidents of this nature should be prosecuted under the less draconian 1871 Dogs Act.

The case was heard at Northampton Magistrates’ Court, and the Lamonts were advised to plead guilty by their solicitor, who clearly was unaware of the full implications of a ‘guilty’ verdict under the DDA. Magistrates accepted the plea and duly ordered that Dino be destroyed, even though this was the dog’s first and only offence. Mr and Mrs Lamont made contact with the Fury Defence Fund, a voluntary group which helps dog owners caught up under the DDA.

Through the FDF, the Lamonts engaged well-known DDA expert solicitor Trevor Cooper to act on their behalf. Mr Cooper lodged an appeal and challenged the destruction order at Northampton Crown Court in September 2001, but the judge upheld the magistrates’ decision, saying that Dino had attacked the other dog without any provocation and continued to pose a danger to public safety.

Dismissed

After the appeal failed, Mr Cooper sought Permission to Appeal to the High Court for a Judicial Review of the case, using the legal technicality of when a dog constitutes a danger to public safety. The appeal hearing was heard on November 12th, but the High Court judges, Lord Justice Laws and Mr Justice Crane dismissed the argument put forward by barrister Shiraz Rustom who said the destruction was unreasonable because there was evidence that the dog did not pose a threat. Mr Rustom had said that any further risk would be eliminated by fitting him with a muzzle when in public. He was backed by the expert testimony of canine behaviourist Mike Mullan, who said that the attack by Dino was “out of character.”

The future looked bleak for Dino, but Mr Cooper lodged a further appeal, seeking permission to take the matter to the House of Lords, citing a complicated - but crucial - point of law, which could, if unchecked, have serious ramifications for every dog in the UK.

“In Section 3 cases, courts have the option to impose a destruction order or a conditional destruction order - a control order to use another term for it,” said Mr Cooper. “In order to avoid a destruction order the defence has to prove that a dog is NOT a danger to public safety. So, how do you do this? You would no doubt rely on the fact that the dog has not bitten anyone before [the incident] or since, as is the case with Dino, and, of course, provide testimony from an expert witness, such as an animal behaviourist, or testimonies from friends, relatives and neighbours as to the dog’s good character. The court then takes these factors into account in considering their verdict.


Dino the dog on death row with owner Carly Lamont who is hoping for a happy outcome.

“But take that a step further: If the dog is genuinely NOT a danger to the public and the court has accepted that it will not bite again, then it should be found Not Guilty. Why should you need to muzzle the dog in public if you have proved that it does not constitute a danger? Conditions to control the dog can only be imposed to prevent further incidents, and this happens in many cases where the dog is found guilty and a control order is issued. The Justices can argue that the magistrate acted correctly by issuing a destruction order because there is no way of proving that the dog will not bite again.

If, on this basis, the High Court dismisses the appeal again, it could have serious implications for every dog in the country. The 1997 Amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act, which allows courts discretion in sentencing dogs for aggravated offences, would effectively be dead in the water. It won’t affect rulings where guilty dogs have been subject to control orders in the past, but it could set a serious precedent for all such future cases. The bottom line will be, if you cannot prove that the dog is not a danger to public safety, then it will have to be destroyed.”

Mr Cooper compiled a dossier of 40 similar cases brought under Section 3 of the DDA since the Act was amended in 1997 to remove the mandatory death sentence and allow courts to impose control orders upon dogs found ‘guilty’. Of these, 35 were given control orders and only five were sentenced to destruction.

This time, the Justices allowed the appeal, and Mr Cooper lodged his dossier at the House of Lords’ legal department in early January. The law Lords’ Legal Committee will then consider the matter and make a ruling, or may refer the matter to the Lords for an oral hearing. They gave a timescale of around eight weeks to reach their verdict although, at the time of going to press, no decision has been announced.

Carol Lamont commented this week: “I have to say, we are very surprised that things have gone this far - it’s almost as if the courts are trying to make an example of us. Dino is not a vicious dog. If we thought he was dangerous in any way, then we would not keep him. After all, we have children of our own and you can’t take risks. But this was an isolated incident and we are prepared to take steps to make sure that he couldn’t react like this again, maybe by using a muzzle or head restraint, but the court has rejected all our assurances.

Ludicrous

“This all shows how ludicrous the DDA is. If Dino had looked like a Pit Bull terrier and had been unregistered, he would have been seized and kept in secret kennels. But he’s accused under Section 3 and has not been seized. If he really was a dangerous dog, what’s the sense in leaving him at liberty? The law really is an ass.”

Trevor Cooper told OUR DOGS: “The Committee have asked for several additional case notes and paperwork, so they are obviously scrutinising the matter very carefully. Essentially, there are three options open to the Committee after they finish their deliberations. They can grant us leave to appeal to the Lords, which is obviously our best option. Alternatively the Committee might not be unanimous in their agreement on the merits of the case, so they will call for an oral hearing to determine the matter.

The worst case scenario is that they will refuse us leave to appeal to the Lords, in which case we will appeal the case to the European Courts under the Human Rights laws. Part of our submission to the Lords does, in fact, hinge on the fact that the Lamonts’ human rights have been infringed by the way this case has been dealt with through the courts.

“So we do have a further line of defence, and the important thing is it buys Dino more time.”