Criminal Law News & Current Affairs

By Alexis Currier


A pawsitive outcome? – A review of the animal welfare amendments in the ACT

On 16 May 2019, the ACT Government introduced the Animal Welfare Legislation Amendment Bill into the Legislative Assembly. The Bill proposed a number of changes to the Animal Welfare Act 1992 (ACT), which are targeted at the advancement of the interest of animals by creating new offences governing animal abuse and neglect. On 26 September 2019, this bill was passed, and the Australian Capital Territory became the first jurisdiction to change the legal status of animal to sentient beings. [1] With these changes coming into effect in or around March 2020, the following will discuss the new offences, and the potential implications this may have on pet owners in the Australian Capital Territory.


Purpose of the amendments

Quoted below directly from the Animal Welfare Legislation Amendment Bill, the purposes of the forthcoming amendments are as follows:

 (1) The main objects of this Act are to recognise —

(a) that animals are sentient beings with intrinsic value; and

(b) that animals deserve to be treated with compassion and have a quality of life that reflects their intrinsic value; and

(c) that people have a duty to care for animals.

(2) This is to be achieved particularly by—

(a) promoting and protecting the welfare of animals; and

(b) providing for the proper and humane care, management and treatment of animals; and

(c) deterring and preventing animal cruelty and the abuse and neglect of animals; and

(d) enforcing laws about the matters mentioned in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c).[2]


Brief summary of the newly introduced offences

In brief summary, the following are the newly introduced offences that are likely to be most pertinent to everyday Canberrans:

  • Failure to provide appropriate care to your pet, which includes a failure to:
    • Appropriate food
    • Appropriate water
    • Appropriate treatment for illness, disease or injury
    • Appropriate shelter or accommodation
    • Clean or hygienic living environment
    • Appropriate grooming and maintenance
    • Appropriate exercise
    • Appropriate opportunities to display behaviour that is normal for the animal
    • Care that is appropriate for the animal’s wellbeing

Holds a maximum penalty of 100 penalty units (being $16,000.00 for an individual), imprisonment for 1 year or both.

  • Failure to provide an animal with water or shelter holds a maximum penalty of 25 penalty units (or a fine of $4,000.00 for an individual)
  • A person will no longer incur criminal or civil liability if, acting honestly and without recklessness, the person forcibly enters a locked motor vehicle, or assists another person to forcibly enter a locked motor vehicle, to release an animal in the motor vehicle which is apparently distressed, injured or at a risk of being injured, or in need of emergency veterinary assistance.
  • A person in charge of a dog commits an offence if their dog is closely confined for a continuous period of 24 hours, and the dog is not exercised, or allowed to exercise itself for the next 2 hours or the next 1 hour and for another hour in the next 24 hours. The maximum penalty for this offence is 25 penalty units, or a fine of $4,000.00 for an individual. [3]


Controversy surrounding the amendments

As with any new laws that capture public attention, there have been some concerns raised by the public regarding the potential effects of these amendments.

One concern raised is surrounding the effects that this may have on the Canberra farming community, albeit very small. Due to the amendments that prevent the confinement of animals, the amendments do not provide any exceptions for the confinement of stock for the purpose of agriculture activities. Accordingly, if those conducting farming need to confine their stock, it is possible that they will be guilty of an offence under the Act.

Another issue raised is surrounding how these offences will be reported or discovered by the authorities.  There is potential for people to be implicated criminally on the basis of an anonymous tip, ranging from a passer-by to an aggrieved neighbour.[4] This has been called into question, and there have been concerns raised by the public who are anxious that they may find themselves being charged with a criminal offence due to someone mistakenly reporting them.

There are also questions regarding cross purposes.  The ACT government currently conducts Kangaroo culling in and around Canberra. However, under the new legislation, it will become and offence if a person injures a mammal and fails to tell inform authorities within 2 hours of injuring the mammal that the animal is injured, and the location at which the animal was injured. Failure to do so will incur a maximum fine of $3,200.00).[5] Here, conflict is raised as the government are highlighting that there are some exceptions that apply to the rules, but those exceptions seemingly only apply to government approved schemes.[6]


Final thoughts

As I’m sure the majority of the population agree our pets can feel like family members and many of us go above and beyond to care for our animals (for example, my family gave my elderly dog present’s and a cake for his 17th birthday). It is important to consider when looking at these amendments that this is targeted at those in the ACT that mistreat animals, not to punish those who might forget to take their dog for a walk every once in a while. The aim is not to punish those who are doing the right thing, but to further deter those in the community who continue to do the wrong thing.

As with all amendments to the law, there are likely to be teething issues when it comes to the enforcement of many of these provisions. These provisions rely heavily on people playing ‘whistle-blower’ and providing complaints regarding others mistreatment of animals. It will be interesting to observe how these laws effect Canberrans, and how the courts will see fit to applying the offences provided for within the Bill. These offences will likely require a level of discretion from the court in order to take into account the circumstances of different animals and offences (e.g. does the animal have a medical condition that require it to be confined?).

Nonetheless, the ACT Government has taken a courageous view on this issue. It is undoubtedly a difficult task to become the first jurisdiction to introduce such laws and is likely to serve as an example to the rest of Australia to demonstrate whether or not such laws can be successfully enforced.


[1] Jake Evans, ‘Animal sentience recognised for the first time under new ACT laws’, ABC News (online, 26 September 2019)  <>.

[2] Animal Welfare Legislation Amendment Bill 2019.

[3] Animal Welfare Legislation Amendment Bill 2019.

[4] The Canberra Times, ‘ ACT animal welfare legislation needs urgent clarification’, The Canberra Times (online, 16 May 2019) <>.

[5] Animal Welfare Legislation Amendment Bill 2019.

[6] Ibid.