The Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced to protect the public from dog attacks, including dog bites. However, dog incidents continue to rise and so as the Act’s ability to function and protect, rather than punish a dog based on their looks rather than how they act is under review, we are asking the question: could mandatory public liability insurance assist in preventing/reducing dog incidents?
Elizabeth West is an associate at Cohen Cramer Solicitors. She heads up the Four Legs Law team and explains more about the law and the benefits, and concerns, which could arise through making public liability insurance for dogs mandatory.
Compensatory not preventative, so could it really make a difference?
It could be argued that making public liability insurance mandatory does nothing to prevent dog bites or attacks, and instead only ensures an injured person can claim damages for their losses and injuries, post incident.
However, accidents do happen, and even if a successful system can be put in place to reduce dog bites/ attacks, they will never be completely eliminated. Having insurance will ensure that innocent victims are compensated, and the hope is that it will promote responsible dog ownership which in turn will reduce incidents.
Would it penalise responsible dog owners?
A major criticism of mandatory insurance is that responsible dog owners will get this (or will already have this) and non-responsible dog owners will not.
However, on the flip side, if a person is found not to have mandatory insurance, prompt action could be taken against these dog owners. It is often argued that a ‘dangerous dog’ results from the owner’s actions. Therefore, there could be an opportunity to remove ‘dangerous dogs’ and rehabilitate or rehome them before incidents occur.
Removing dogs for not having insurance would put pressure on already full rescue centres
Another criticism of mandatory insurance is that those who choose not to get this, or cannot afford it, will either have their dogs taken off them or will abandon or surrender their dogs to rescue centres who do not have the resources to deal with them.
However, one of the aspects of mandatory insurance is to promote responsible dog ownership, so hopefully it will make people think more before getting a dog, and ensure people take dog ownership seriously. It is expected that part of the insurance premium should be used for education to promote responsible dog ownership.
In addition, part of the insurance premium should be used for more rescue and rehabilitation centres to ensure dogs can find new homes. It would also allow some dogs to be rehabilitated before an incident occurs.
Who would enforce this?
Local authorities and Police are already over-stretched and concerns have been raised as to who would enforce any mandatory insurance.
Compulsory dog microchipping was introduced in April 2016, and still now, over two years later, it is clear (from dogs picked up as strays or lost) that there are dogs not microchipped. Therefore, critics question why mandatory insurance will be any different.
Mandatory insurance is different by virtue of the fact that people have to pay an ongoing insurance premium. Some of the insurance premium could ensure that more money can be put into local authorities or police resources and perhaps allow for specific departments to enforce this.
This will also give the opportunity to check for other mandatory requirements, like microchipping, and it could result in early awareness of any behaviour concerns, or welfare issues, before incidents occur.
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What about the cost implication for already responsible owners?
It could be said that a responsible dog owner will always have dog insurance. However, there are lots of loving, caring owners whose dogs, for whatever reason, are not insured.
A common reason for this is that people may think they only need insurance for vet bills and that their dog would not bite anyone. However, any dog could be involved in a public liability incident, which could include, for example, running into the road and causing a road traffic accident. If you are not insured, you could be personally liable for any claim brought (which could be very expensive and, in some cases, ruinous).
Currently, Dog’s Trust membership, which includes public liability insurance is £25.00 per year (or £12.50 if you’re over 60). Owning a dog is likely to be financially uncertain anyway (vet bills, for instance) so if a person cannot afford £25/£12.50 per year for their dog, owning one may not be financially viable in any event.
In fact, mandatory insurance may make people think more before getting a dog as to whether they can afford it, and in fact (and hopefully) reduce the number of abandoned dogs.
There could, in addition, be a provision for reduced premiums for vulnerable sections of society, as well as reduced premiums if conditions are met, (training schemes; provisions in place in the home- fencing, gates, letter guards) thus further providing incentives for responsible dog ownership and putting measures in place to prevent incidents.
How would it assist in preventing incidents?
If insurance was mandatory, part of the premium could be used to help with education, training and promoting responsible dog ownership. It is often raised when dangerous dogs and legislation are reviewed, that we look to the wrong end of the lead.
There is no evidence to show that any breed is more dangerous than another, but it is apparent that any dog can become dangerous by virtue of its environment, the conditions it is raised in and how it is treated. It is therefore paramount, in order to address dangerous dogs, that the focus move away from the breed of the dog, and more on ensuring responsible dog ownership.
Current legislation, which bans certain breeds, provides a false sense of security to the general public who are of the opinion they are protected from dangerous dogs.
Making people responsible for insurance should also reinforce the commitment needed to properly care for and maintain a dog. It sends a message that there are consequences for looking after animals, which includes a financial one.
What would happen if you are injured by an uninsured dog if compulsory insurance is introduced?
The likelihood is there would still be significant numbers of uninsured dogs, or those whose owners cannot be traced. So, what would happen if you are injured by one of them?
In this situation, it is prudent to look to the system already in place for motor cars, where insurance (minimum 3rd party) is already mandatory. Car insurance companies must pay into a central fund called the Motor Insurers Bureau, who compensate victims of uninsured and untraced drivers, and then work with the Police to bring the perpetrators to justice.
A similar system could be put in place for dog insurance, which would ensure victims of incidents involving dogs are compensated, with a provision to locate and/ or bring to justice the dog owners.
Is this just another type of dog licensing?
Many people are concerned that this is just another form of dog licencing, which was abolished in 1987, because many dog owners did not obtain one.
In terms of mandatory insurance, it would have the benefits of dog licensing in terms of compulsory registration and dog ownership (but this should be covered by the mandatory microchip in any event). The major difference is the benefits it offers dog owners in terms of insurance cover and protection.
Insurance will provide protection if someone is injured or property gets damaged in an incident involving a person’s dog. Cover should include providing the necessary legal expertise to deal with these sorts of matters on behalf of the dog owner.
Protection of the vulnerable
When there is an allegation against an individual (especially regarding injuries caused by dogs), an injured person will often instruct a Solicitor to deal with the matter for them. Their Solicitor will then write to the dog owner, generally with a Letter of Claim.
At this point, an individual who is insured can pass the matter to their insurance company who will deal with it for them and instruct legal representation where appropriate. Mandatory insurance helps ensure that every dog owner is fairly represented and therefore provides a level playing field for those dealing with such claims.
In addition, as previously mentioned, where a person is liable it will mean that the insurance company will be responsible for paying any compensation due.
This should also offer protection to vulnerable people who may be intimidated when receiving a solicitor’s letter and make payments for unfounded claims.
Therefore, mandatory insurance will ensure genuine claims where the dog owner is liable are dealt with properly and claims for which the dog owner is not liable are defended.
Dog on dog incidents: how pet insurance could assist
At present dog on dog incidents are an area of controversy.
Where there is a dispute in relation to liability on this, dog owners often find themselves approaching solicitors only to be told that the matter will fall into the small claims track.
This means, where the amount being claimed is less then £10,000 (the majority of dog on dog cases), solicitors’ costs are not paid by the losing side, and therefore would have to be paid by the dog owner (if they want legal representation).
Therefore, many find themselves with nowhere to go for expert help without incurring further costs. Mandatory insurance would assist with this, as it would offer individuals a source of expert help in the recovery of their incurred costs and expenses.
Allow accurate statistics
Mandatory insurance would allow for more accurate statistics on dog ownership and dog incidents. This would allow for further development, further education and specific training.
So, should dog insurance be mandatory?
It is clear that mandatory insurance may well offer many benefits to dog owners and society at large.
However, there are also areas of uncertainty, such as how it would be enforced, how it would protect the vulnerable, and how it would ensure and interact with animal welfare. All these matters would no doubt benefit from further detailed investigation and analysis.
However, Ryan O’Meara, publisher of K9 Magazine and a former professional dog trainer believes compulsory third party insurance for dog owners would be a fantastic step in the right direction toward improving accountability.
“If we are to call ourselves a nation of animal lovers it is important that we act upon that fine sentiment rather than just claim to be compassionate.
“Protecting dogs by ensuring a level of legal accountability - similar to what we would expect of someone who wishes to be a qualified, responsible driver of a motor vehicle - can only be positive. At present, there are few measures in place to protect dogs from irresponsible owners and to protect the responsible owners of dogs from the actions of irresponsible ones. By insisting that all dogs are covered, at a minimum, by third-party liability insurance helps us on the road to better standards of responsibility.”
What's your opinion?
Do you think it could promote better dog ownership standards and help prevent dog bites? Comment below and let us know.