Nesbitt wants tougher sentences for animal cruelty
Stronger legal powers to combat sickening cases of animal cruelty are not working, it has been claimed.
For courts are failing to apply stiffer sentences - the toughest penalties in the UK or Ireland allowing for maximum imprisonment of five years.
Now Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt is to meet Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory on the priority being given to animal welfare.
Justice Minister Claire Sugden conferred new rights on the DPP to refer lenient sentences on people convicted of cruelty to a higher court after suspended prison sentences were given to four east Belfast men who trained and kept dogs for fighting in 2014.
The new provisions, drawn up by her predecessor David Ford with the former Department of Agriculture, came into force over the summer and emerged in an Assembly answer after a tabby cat called Tiger was set on fire in Hillsborough.
Mr Nesbitt said: "Animal cruelty in its worst form continues to regularly take place in Northern Ireland. There have been appalling stories of animals being starved, attacked and used to fight one another.
"Such situations inflict horrific levels of animal suffering and it is essential that those responsible pay for their crimes in court, but sadly this is not yet the case."
The Strangford MLA said he was meeting the DPP next week "to discuss with him how he is going to use his new powers to refer an unduly lenient sentence to the Court of Appeal and enquire where animal welfare lies within his list of priorities."
The most recent figures show over 4,000 animal welfare cases were investigated by councils each year from 2012 - and between 2012 and 2014 there were 114 convictions for animal cruelty, 15 of which resulted in custodial sentences.
"Whilst we have the toughest penalties for animal cruelty of anywhere in the UK or Ireland, including a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment, it is a matter of huge regret that they are still not being forcefully applied. This has caused sickening scenes of offenders walking free from court and jeering," Mr Nesbitt added.
"There have been several cases in recent times which have been labelled as horrific but for which only lenient sentences have been handed down. If offenders in these cases are simply being let off with a slap on the wrist, our sentencing system will never act as a proper deterrent," he said.
In the Assembly, Agriculture and Environment Minister Michelle McIlveen said she would be happy to hold a further meeting with Ms Sugden on the issue.
"As an animal lover and someone who was brought up with animals, I am very conscious of and sensitive to animal welfare," the DUP Minister said.
"Where there are opportunities to strengthen or review legislation, I am open to having those conversations.
"I absolutely would be up for a meeting with the Minister of Justice."
She was responding to a question from Mr Nesbitt who said: "It is not a question of strengthening legislation (but its) application by the courts."