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Accidents Involving Animals (Strict Liability)

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Animals Act 1971 to make it a defence in law for the owner of an animal involved in an accident to show that he took all reasonable steps to keep the animal in a secure enclosure; and for connected purposes.

I should first of all declare that I am chairman of the all-party horse group, and, although I am not required to register the following interest, I declare that my partner is the proprietor of a riding school.

In introducing the Bill, I seek to remove an inequity that can see, and has seen, blameless people being held liable for damages, following accidents that no person could have prevented. Members will know that there are very few strict liability offences under English law—when an instance occurs, it is overwhelmingly so that people can mitigate the case against them by showing that they took all reasonable steps to avoid an incident taking place.

Further, in English criminal law, a guilty action amounts to an offence only if the person involved has a guilty mind—in legal speak, mens rea—meaning that the person must have had intent to cause the incident or must have been reckless as to its likely occurrence. That, I am sure, is how the House would want the situation to be, under both the civil and criminal law. The alternative—that one can be held liable for an event about which one knew nothing, and, indeed, that one had taken all reasonable steps to prevent—is a chilling scenario, much more suited to the worst totalitarian states than to democracies.

On 12 April 2006, the Court of Appeal held that absolute offences, which may subject a person to conviction and punishment in circumstances where he had done nothing wrong, may well be an infringement of his human rights. Yet there are one or two provisions in English law that can lead to that very situation, and it is one of those that my Bill seeks to address today. It exists in section 2 of the Animals Act 1971.

The wording of the Act, as might be expected, is a little tortuous and unclear, but it seems to suggest that the owner of an animal is always liable for damages if that animal is involved in an accident, regardless of the steps taken to avoid such an accident happening. Although the Act is somewhat ambiguous to a layman, it was interpreted in the House of Lords to mean precisely that—that someone can be held liable in all such cases. In the case of Mirvahedy v. Henley in March 2003, the House of Lords held the defendants liable for damages for injuries caused to a motorist, Hossein Mirvahedy, in an accident after their horse had escaped from a field.

I do not for one moment make light of the serious injuries sustained by Mr. Mirvahedy, who was a blameless individual whose misfortune it was to be involved in the accident. Nor do I say that, in all circumstances, animal owners should be relieved of all responsibility for their animals—not at all, as there may well be cases where they are liable—but I do question how any reasonable person could attach blame to Mr. and Mrs. Henley when they had taken all reasonable steps to avoid such an incident occurring.

If that iniquity is not removed, the knock-on effect could be considerable. For example, given the new right to roam, would farmers be responsible for any accident that resulted from one of their sheep escaping on to a road if a rambler had crossed the farmer’s field and left a gate open? Following the House of Lords ruling, presumably they would be held responsible, yet that would be manifestly unfair. What exactly is the farmer expected to do in those circumstances?

Let us take the case of riding schools, which are a source of much enjoyment to people of all ages, especially children. If a horse escapes from a secure field, which horses do, and causes an accident, is the owner to be liable for damages even though there are no steps that he could reasonably have been expected to take to avoid such an occurrence? If a horse bolts when startled by a loud and sudden noise close to it, is the owner of the animal equally held liable for any damage? Again, apparently, yes: the owner of the horse would, following the House of Lords ruling, be liable. We could then reach the situation where riding schools close down, which benefits nobody, unless they can afford the increasingly expensive insurance polices that would cover them against such damage—policies that will surely become even more expensive following the ruling. We could reach a situation whereby farmers, who are struggling financially in any case, decide that it simply is not worth it any more. Where would we be then?

Surely the best way to avoid those undesirable outcomes is to amend the Animals Act in that respect, which is what I seek to do. I should therefore like to insert a new clause into the Act, which states:

“It shall be a defence to any action brought under this Act for the keeper of the animal to show that he took all reasonable care in the circumstances to avoid any accident or incident occurring, or damage being caused to a Third Party or their property”.

I am hopeful of making some progress because the Government are sympathetic to what I am saying. I tabled a parliamentary question in April, and the response from the Minister was as follows:

“The Animals Act 1971 currently has the effect of placing strict liability on the owner of animals that cause harm whatever the circumstances. This appears to be inconsistent with current liability law in other areas which allow for a general defence of reasonable care. The Government have acknowledged that there may be a case for an amendment to the Animals Act and expects to launch a consultation shortly”.—[Official Report, 25 April 2006; Vol. 445, c.971W.]

I am not sure whether that consultation has yet been launched, but the law certainly needs amending sooner rather than later, and I am pleased that the Government have acknowledged that.

The Bill has support from Members of four political parties, and I am grateful to Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Democratic Unionist Members for their enthusiastic support. They realise that the present situation represents an anomaly in the law. I am also grateful to the British Horse Society for its support.

I repeat that I have the utmost sympathy for anyone involved in an accident caused by an animal and I accept that animal owners have a responsibility to take all reasonable steps to avoid such accidents. However, the fact that someone has taken all reasonable steps to avoid such incidents should be a defence in law against litigation, and it is that balance in the law that the Bill seeks to strike. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Laurence Robertson, Mr. Mark Todd, Mr. Peter Atkinson, Philip Davies, Mr. Nigel Evans, Mr. Richard Benyon, Kate Hoey, Miss Anne McIntosh, Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson, Mr. David Anderson and Lembit Opik.

Accidents Involving Animals (Strict Liability)

Mr. Laurence Robertson accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Animals Act 1971 to make it a defence in law for the owner of an animal involved in an accident to show that he took all reasonable steps to keep the animal in a secure enclosure; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October; and to be printed [Bill 214].