People who are found guilty of animal cruelty in Northern Ireland will now face much tougher penalties under the law.

Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill and Justice Minister David Ford recently launched the Report of the Review of the Implementation of Animal Welfare Legislation in Belfast.

It makes 68 recommendations aimed at enhancing communication between the enforcement bodies, improving processes and highlighting the Animal Welfare Service to the public.

However, at its heart, it advocates tougher sentencing for the more serious offences and new powers for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to challenge sentences for undue leniency.

Minister O’Neill said that she wants to send a very clear message that we will not tolerate cruelty and that those individuals who neglected and abused animals would pay in court.

“This Review recommends an increase in the penalties available to the judiciary for the most serious animal welfare offences.”

Some offenders could now face up to five years behind bars for their actions. It is vital that no time is lost putting these measures in place.

Both ministers were keen to see this achieved as quickly as possible and they accepted the recommendation before the final report was published.

This allowed them to make the necessary legislative changes as early as possible.

Minister O’Neill said she was grateful to Minister Ford for including them in the Justice Bill. These legislative changes are now going through the Assembly and will shortly become law.

O’Neill said that the Review also recommended that the most serious animal welfare offences be included in the Unduly Lenient Sentences (ULS) scheme.

“This will be enshrined in legislation within a few weeks and will allow the DPP to refer animal welfare cases to the Court of Appeal where the sentence handed down in cases heard by the Crown Court is considered to be unduly lenient.”

These changes mean we will have the toughest penalties for animal welfare offences anywhere on these islands.

“I firmly believe that they will be a real deterrent and show how seriously animal welfare is viewed. This is a clear message that we are tough on offenders to protect the welfare of animals.”

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Ford said that crimes against vulnerable animals are abhorrent and will not be tolerated in society.

“In the past five years we moved from maximum penalties of just three months imprisonment to the five year maximum recently agreed by the Assembly. This shows how seriously we view animal cruelty.

“I am pleased to have been able to include the necessary legislation in the Justice (No2) Bill.

“Alongside the changes my Department is making to the Unduly Lenient Sentences scheme I believe this will significantly improve our ability to effectively tackle animal cruelty.”

The Ministers will also announce a new Animal Welfare Web presence which will be a single source of information from all the enforcement bodies.

According to DARD, it will assist members of public understand who to contact if they are concerned about the welfare of an animal and it will also provide information about buying and caring for animals.