Animal cruelty crackdown
Public anger prompts Assembly to introduce the UK’s toughest penalties
Dog fighting laws in Northern Ireland are now the most stringent in the UK, thanks to new measures pushed through in the Justice Bill this week.
Prison sentences for the worst animal abuse offences - including dog fighting - have increased from a maximum of two to five years, while maximum fines have risen from £5,000 to £20,000.
The Belfast Telegraph had backed the move for tougher animal abuse sentencing, following a series of shocking cases.
They included a notorious dog fighting gang which walked free from court in 2014, despite their case being described as one of the worst animal cruelty cases in Northern Ireland's history.
The public outcry triggered the Department of Justice to hold a public consultation into sentences handed down for animal cruelty.
The League Against Cruel Sports said the Assembly's decision to increase the penalties so drastically means it will have the most stringent legislation in the UK for animal cruelty offences.
The group said organised dog fights can last up to five hours, with horrific injuries sustained by the animals involved.
Brutal training methods involve putting a smaller 'bait' animal - often a cat or a rodent - just out of reach for hours while the dog strains against a tether.
Eventually the tether is removed and the dog is let loose to attack the bait animal.
Janice Watt, from League Against Cruel Sports N Ireland, said: "We strongly welcome this decision to increase punishments for dog fighting, which is one of the most barbaric and depraved forms of animal abuse.
"Harsher penalties will provide a more effective deterrent to help stop this horrific cruelty being inflicted on man's best friend.
"This development will hopefully lay the foundations for other parts of the UK to implement similarly increased penalties."
The League said that its detailed submission to this consultation recommended much more severe penalties.
It had also advised that defendants who had demonstrated an appetite for particularly violent acts against animals and a prolonged, premeditated and sustained cycle of animal abuse should automatically be referred to the Crown Court in order to allow the maximum penalty to be imposed.
Ms Watt said: "The League is delighted that the Department of Justice took on board our recommendations and that the NI Assembly passed the Justice Bill without objection.
"We would like to thank David Ford, Minister of Justice, for his determination to address the lack of confidence in the judiciary by presenting the consultation proposals to the Assembly."
Alliance Animal Welfare spokesperson Chris Lyttle MLA said the increased maximum sentence followed public revulsion at a number of high-profile animal cruelty cases in his constituency.
The East Belfast MLA said: "It is only right those guilty of such crimes receive the serious sentences their crimes deserve. Strong laws are of little value without effective enforcement.
"Thanks to the Justice Minister's work, this is a chance to finally make the punishment fit the crime."