Crimes Against Animal Welfare – Supreme Court Takes a Tough Approach

Animal welfare is a matter of huge public concern and that had a central part to play in a Supreme Court case concerning chickens which were still alive when they went into a slaughterhouse’s scalding tank. The Court’s ruling underlined that, at least for the moment, EU legislation continues to enjoy primacy over UK law.

The slaughterhouse had an annual throughput of about 19.5 million chickens. Birds had their legs shackled to a moving line before being stunned, bled and scalded to remove their feathers. The owner was prosecuted after three chickens entered the scalding tank alive because their necks had not been properly cut.

The owner was charged with offences under the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015 (the WATOK Regulations). The prosecution case was that there were failures to spare the chickens unnecessary suffering and to verify that their carotid arteries had been severed, and that they were showing no signs of life, before they were placed in the tank.

Following a preliminary hearing, the trial judge found that the offences were ones of strict liability and that the prosecution was not required to prove either intent or negligence on the owner’s part. That ruling was subsequently upheld by the High Court, which noted the strength of social concern regarding animal welfare.

In dismissing the owner’s challenge to the latter decision, the Supreme Court noted that neither the WATOK Regulations nor the EU legislation which underpins them include any express requirement that intent or culpability be proved against those accused of relevant offences. The UK had no discretion to lower the standards of animal welfare prescribed under EU law and there was thus no basis for implying such a requirement into the WATOK Regulations.

There was no hint in the WATOK Regulations or EU legislation that business operators should be held liable only if the rules are intentionally or negligently infringed. The Court noted that the imposition of strict liability in such cases has the virtue of easing enforcement of clear animal welfare standards uniformly across the EU.

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