Saturday, 21 July 2012

The law is reason, free from passion

Title quote attributed to Aristotle

Last week I wrote about the hate-filled comments people were leaving on Belfast City Council's Facebook page following the destruction of a dog called Lennox. Annoyingly a few of them are still hanging around, wishing tsunamis on the city of Belfast and copying and pasting evocative words like "shame" and "killers" in big, black, block letters.

If it's not enough that they're doing this on the post actually about Lennox, they're also doing it on every other post the Council makes, be it about parks winning awards, Rose Week, staff vacancies or, in particular poor taste, about the City Hall being closed due to a hoax bomb threat, which is just ridiculous really.

Plus everything is a conspiracy theory. Apparently they're advertising vacancies because they're replacing people who were involved in the Lennox thing (yes, I'm sure that a Duty Manager of a leisure centre and an Economic Development Manager are intricately involved in the control of dangerous dogs). Also, did you know that the Council planted that suspicious device itself to garner sympathy from the public? 'Cause it's not like anyone else had a motive, bearing in mind the animals rights nutters and the Twelfth weekend just before, no siree!

The sad thing is that I'm completely fascinated with the whole thing. I find myself checking the Council's Facebook page every night to see what nonsense the crazy people have been spewing since the day before.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for freedom of speech (as long as it doesn't hurt innocent people) and the individual's right to question or support anything they wish, especially if it's the actions of a public authority. However some of these people are offending people by what they say (I must admit I don't take kindly to being told that my city should be nuked) and also most of them don't even live in the UK, let alone Northern Ireland (the main offenders seem to be from the USA and Italy for some reason), so what right do these strangers from around the world have to demand an unnecessary "full explanation" and "investigation" from an authority that I (who do not want these things) would have to pay for?

The thing that annoys me about it most is that these people are almost militant in their campaign, but yet they're basing it on propaganda, half-truths and a complete misunderstanding about how our country is governed. I would give them some leeway if the facts of this case were hard to find or obscured in any way, but they're freely available and have even been published in response to the vile comments on Facebook by some of those who have actually done their research before rushing headlong into the debate.

This is how I see it: it is a sad situation when a beloved pet is removed from its family and put to sleep without actually having attacked anyone. However, when you understand the facts of the case, I don't think what was done was unjust or in any way demands a "full explanation" or an investigation. This is my understanding of the matter, based on my own research.

In 1991, it became illegal in the mainland UK (The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991) and Northern Ireland (Dangerous Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1991) to breed, sell or own certain types of dog, one of which was a Pit Bull Terrier type. Note, "type", not "breed" - the legislation made it clear that whether or not a dog was considered one of these "types" was subject to an assessment of its physicial characteristics and a subsequent judgement by a court. This legislation granted the power to seize and destroy any such dogs.

In 1997 the mainland UK amended their legislation (The Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997), part of which allowed the court to make certain dogs that had been previously declared illegal an "exemption", if it was satisfied that the dog was not a danger to the public. It took us a while but Northern Ireland implemented similar legislation in 2011 (Dogs (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011), specifying in Article 5 (2) that "the district judge (magistrates’ court) may order the destruction of the dog and shall do so unless satisfied that the dog will not be a danger to the public.”

In the case of Lennox, the dog's owners had apparently originally disputed that it was a Pit Bull Terrier type but later agreed that it was, so that matter is not up for debate any more. Therefore what happened next was simply the fulfilling of the legislation. The dog was illegal and its destruction was therefore required by law, that is unless a court found that the dog would not pose a threat to the public and granted an exemption.

In April 2011 the Magistrate's Court had ruled that the dog was to be destroyed as it was an illegal type. The dog's owner therefore submitted an appeal to the County Court, seeking an exemption to spare the dog's life.

The County Court heard the appeal in September, when it took all previous evidence into consideration and also heard two expert witnesses itself. I won't go into the ins and outs of who said what but the written judgement is available on the Belfast City Council website anyway. It is actually quite an interesting read and it's clear that the court carefully considered all aspects before it made its ruling.

I would concur with the written judgement that, given the reports of the dog's potentially violent behaviour (in one case even from an expert witness who had acted on behalf of the dog's owner), there was no way to be sure that the dog would not be a danger to the public and therefore it had no option but to order the dog's destruction. As above, the legislation says that, "the district judge (magistrates’ court) may order the destruction of the dog and shall do so unless satisfied that the dog will not be a danger to the public.” In legislation the word "shall" means "must", i.e. there is no wiggle room.

There was then a bit of legal toing and froing about how the County Court's judge may not have taken into consideration the fact that the Dogs (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 allows the Council to set up an "exemption scheme". The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal therefore considered the case in light of this on 12 June 2012. However its verdict was essentially that the dog had been considered too dangerous for an exemption scheme to apply and so it overturned the appeal; the decision to destroy the dog would stand. The Court of Appeal's written judgment is available on the NI Courts website for those who may want to read it in full.

Seemingly there was then a one month deadline for further appeal, which passed without anything being lodged by the dog's owner. Therefore on Wednesday 11 July, the dog was destroyed in line with the legal decision(s) that had been made. The Council, as the body responsible for enforcing the law and the legal decision arising from it, was just doing what it legally had to do.

What I actually find outrageous is that Peter Robinson, our First Minister, saw fit to take to Twitter and condemn the death of the dog, when in reality it was his Assembly that passed the legislation in the first place! Perhaps not the 1991 Order, because devolution hadn't happened at that stage, but they certainly passed the 2011 Amendment without, so far as I can see, any kind of uproar about the law as it stood in relation to this kind of matter.

Granted MLAs have to consider and pass so many laws they probably don't get to sit down and really research them in any great detail, but that's really their preogative. If a point of law resulting from legislation your Assembly has passed makes you unhappy, you should address the matter through the relevant Minister in the fora already set up for such things (Assembly Questions and the like), rather than taking to the public stage to undermine the law, the process and all those involved just to gain a few brownie points with the animal lovers in your constituency.

On Twitter he said he has asked the DARD Minister to review the law, but, firstly what does that really mean? Preumably it was reviewed plenty over the last few years when the Amendment was being drafted and passed. New legislation tends to be subject to review by legal experts, the relevant Assembly Committee and at least one public consultation before the Assembly can pass it. In fact as First Minister, an MLA and the leader of his party he would probably have received notification of the public consultation at least three times. If he didn't comment then, that's kind of his problem; plenty of other people did and their responses are available on the DARD website (search for "response from" to get to them on the list). But to come out now and whine that it's just not faaaaiiiiirrrrr is just downright inappropriate for someone in that position. If the public see that you don't have confidence in the laws your Assembly is passing, First Minister, how are we supposed to trust them? Or you for that matter?

Anyway, I've heard so many opinions on this whole case that it makes my head spin. I wrote a quick three sentence post on Facebook about how ironic it was that people who were up in arms about the death of a dog would be so quick to wish death and destruction on a whole city, and it attracted quite the debate, let me tell you. And I don't even have that many friends to begin with! There were comments from those who have witnessed what happens when a young child is mauled by a dangerous dog and therefore support the law, but also from those who have said that the council staff, by not refusing to disobey the law to destroy the dog, somehow makes them like the citizens of Germany allowing the holocaust to happen during WWII.

Frankly, I'm tired of the whole thing now. Personally I prefer to deal only with the facts of the case and with logic and common sense, which is why I did the research I referred to above, about the judicial rulings made and the legislation behind them.

The animal rights campaigners on the Belfast City Council Facebook page keep harping on about wanting Belfast City Council to answer for what they've done (obey the law so far as I can see) and how they demand a full investigation. Well, investigate it yourselves, people. The information is all out there. But to help you out, here's a clue: if you're taking your facts from a page where someone has photoshopped a picture of the dog to make him look like an angel, or a picture of the Council logo to look like it's running with blood, you may wish to consider that they have a certain bias in the case at hand.

In the meantime I'll probably keep checking the Council's Facebook page every now and then (to simultaneously amuse and frustrate myself) to see what the crazy people are saying now, until they inevitably crawl back under their rock, just like people do with every other cause for outrage in the world. Such is life. And for those who are "boycotting" Belfast because of this? Please do!

P.S. I wrote this post yesterday. This morning I read this article from the Belfast Telegraph about how a dog rehoming charity has been the target of this hate mail campaign because some lazy journalist somewhere in the USA misreported that Lennox had been held there for some time whilst the legal battles were ongoing. Even if he had, how would dog lovers taking care of a dog be any reason to target them rather than thank them?! These people sicken me.

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