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Amnesty dogs are freed!

David Lightfoot and Joe Azzopardi after the hearing

THE TRIAL of the dogs seized by police during Merseyside Police’s controversial and ill-advised ‘dangerous dog amnesty’ concluded at Liverpool Magistrates Court last Wednesday amid scenes of great jubilation, when District Judge Miriam Shelvey ruled that although the dogs’ appearance made them ‘guilty’ of being of the pit bull ‘type’ she was satisfied that none of them presented a threat to public safety and ordered that all be returned to their owners.

As reported previously, the amnesty – termed a ‘dog hand in’ by the police – was instigated by Merseyside’s Chief Constable Bernard Hogan-Howe in early February as a means of being seen to be ‘doing something’ to allay concerns about fighting dogs in the Merseyside area. This followed the death of five year-old Ellie Lawrenson who was savaged to death by a Pit Bull Terrier owned by her Uncle Kiel Simpson in the early hours of New Year’s Day. The dog was later found to have been bred in Northern Ireland and was linked to fighting dogs seized from a farm by police and officials from the USPCA in Co. Armagh.

The resultant media furore led to raids on a number of houses in Liverpool and the wider Merseyside area in which a number of alleged fighting dogs were seized. Chief Constable Hogan-Howe launched the ‘hand in’ against the advice of the Kennel Club, Dogs Trust and many other animal welfare agencies and individual experts, all of whom pointed out that the so-called amnesty would not capture genuinely dangerous dogs, or those bred for fighting, but ordinary family pets.

It would appear that the experts’ views were upheld, when only 15 dogs out of the 86 seized were taken to court, all of which were harmless, well looked after family pets, as the ruling last Wednesday showed.

The Kennel Club had asked well-known dog solicitor Trevor Cooper to act for the owners of the 15 dogs. Mr Cooper appointed barrister Pamela Rose, who has great experience in defending cases brought under the Dangerous Dogs Act. Mr Cooper also officially retained Juliette and John Glass of the anti-BSL group Fury Defence Fund to assist Ms Rose in court and organise the defendants’ defence claims. Kennel Club representative Holly Lee also assisted Ms Rose on both days of the court hearings, which began on Tuesday February 27th and concluded on Wednesday February 28th.

It later transpired that the Kennel Club had made a substantial, but anonymous, donation to pay the defendants’ legal fees, due to the fact that all the dogs were charged under Section 4(b) of the DDA, which excluded them from claiming legal aid.

Ms Rose defended 12 of the 16 dogs over the two days. The cases of three dogs were adjourned to a later date, whilst that of ‘BUSTER’, owned by Sheila Mossley was represented by Emma Smith of Crowley solicitors.On the first morning of the trial – Tuesday - the waiting area was packed with dog owners, some of them already on Ms Rose’s list, along with others which had been given notification to attend by the police, but had come without legal representation. John Glass of the Fury Defence Fund made contact with all of the owners, organised a queue, and took them to Pamela’s conference room for details to be taken. Ms Rose kept a calm demeanour, bearing in mind the chaos in the court and being presented with clients at the last minute for paperwork to be prepared. As there had been insufficient time to see everyone, Ms Rose requested a Recess during the Hearing, as she had not had an opportunity to speak with all her clients.

The Prosecution lawyer for Merseyside police made a brief submission, in which he said that this was the first of a number of applications. Some owners were very responsible, many owners had co-operated fully with the police and other responsible owners had voluntarily handed in their dogs’.

This fact was backed up by Ms Rose, whilst the Crown, in each individual case, gave evidence to the effect that all the dogs were friendly and/or playful and had showed no aggression. They also indicated that some of the dogs had already been neutered and microchipped by their owners prior to seizure.

Ms Rose told the court: ‘There is no evidence that any dog constitutes a danger under the legislation and under Section 4B you would have to assess whether it would constitute a danger.
‘All my clients want their dogs home. We have not questioned the burden of ‘type’. These individual dogs do not constitute a danger to public safety, and in my submission you have heard nothing to the contrary. The Police have chosen this route. The legislation would ensure that every dog would be on a lead and muzzle in a public place. There is no evidence that there has ever been any risk to the public. If there was any concern about danger, then you would have muzzling and ‘on a lead’ requirements. Because it is an Amendment Law, dogs that have done nothing wrong are not subject to a destruction order… so it has left the discretion for the Court.’
Ms Rose added that there were numerous letters from neighbours, friends, cousins, employers, dog trainers and vets attesting to the individual dogs’ good characters.

Over the rest of the day and the early part of the following day, Ms Rose defended each dog, sometimes with the owners taking the witness stand. There were few challenges to the defence from the prosecution, and it became clear that the police could only agree that the dogs were all well-behaved family pets, but simply had been identified by the police expert witness – PC Peter Tallack of the Metropolitan Police dog unit – as being ‘of the type’. Identifying evidence for the defence was provided by Crufts’ vet and long-time DDA defence expert witness Trevor Turner.
In between the two days’ hearings, John and Juliette Glass sat with several or the defendants in their hotel room and worked through until the early hours of the morning in preparing their witness statement and defence paperwork.

The following morning, the remaining dogs’ evidence was heard. In her closing submission, Ms Rose told the court: ‘All the dogs that you have before you have done nothing wrong. There is an abundance of evidence to show that all the clients are people who are responsible owners, who would seek to comply with any requirements made by the legislation. All voluntarily surrendered their dogs when the police arrived. Others contacted the police believing the Amnesty would not destroy their dogs.

‘The 1997 Amendment Act was enacted as a direct result of draconian measures [of the original Act]….dogs were being seized and the courts’ hands were completely tied because legislation didn’t allow late registration and exemption. None of the dogs here have been prosecuted. The muzzling regulations means no dog can in public cause any problem of safety whatsoever. You can see that all of these people would comply.’

Regarding the seizing of the dogs PAMELA ROSE said: ‘It was a very, very dark day for the people here, their children, their family, their neighbours. A black day for all these dogs. They don’t care if their dogs have to be muzzled because they can have their dogs back home.’

Judge Shelvey retired to consider her verdict at 12.45pm and returned at 3pm to give her ruling and judgement.

Judge Shelvey said: ‘These Applications were brought by the Chief Constable of Merseyside. 15 dogs seized as each appeared to be a dog of the type known as a Pit Bull Terrier… The Amendment of 1997 allows me limited discretion if I am satisfied that the dog would not constitute a danger to the public safety…..

‘I have heard extensive evidence over the best of two days. I had to consider all the circumstances relating to each dog…I am not going to deal with each and every individual dog. There is no evidence that any of these dogs had been involved in dog fighting. There is no request by the Chief Constable for the destruction of these dogs. The evidence of the Merseyside Police was that they were well behaved. Some described as friendly, allowing themselves to be handled in strange situations. There is no evidence that any of these dogs displayed aggression. Some dogs had attended training classes. They displayed no tendency to aggression….I would describe the owners as very responsible. I am satisfied that the dogs can be added to the Register of Exempted Breeds.’

On her pronouncement, the court erupted into a maelstrom of cheering, applause and crying. Judge Shelvey called for silence. She awarded no costs to either defence or prosecution and ordered that the dogs be returned to their owners as soon as the various registration requirement were carried out.

Juliette Glass of the Fury Defence Fund told OUR DOGS ‘The atmosphere, previously so tense was now rich with jubilation and the noise of the cheering and clapping went up through the rafters. Our dear friend Pamela Rose was wonderful and we are proud to have assisted her throughout the two-day hearing. All these dogs owe their lives to her.

‘Throughout 16 years of attending Court many tears of sorrow were shed when innocent pets were condemned under the DDA, but on this occasion the tears were of total joy. Holly Lee, who had tears in her eyes, also deserves much praise for the way she assisted Pam; she is a real credit to the Kennel Club.’

A trial date for the three remaining dogs – named ‘Bonnie’, ‘Owen’ and ‘Tara’ is yet to be set.

Barrister Pam Rose speaking to dog owners prior to the hearing

Owners Richard Leigh and Paul Casey speaking to the press after the hearing