An overview of animal welfare law: procedure, cases, penalties and advice

12th October 2023

Humanity’s true moral test, its fundamental test, consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” (Milan Kundera)

Over the years, animal welfare laws have progressed from only preventing unnecessary suffering to a more comprehensive set of regulations aimed at protecting all animals.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 (AWA 2006) is the primary legislation that governs this area of law, along with the Animal Welfare (sentience) Bill and the proposed Action Plan for Animal Welfare, which will be introduced after the Brexit transition period.


The Animal Welfare Act 2006 makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal, whether domestic or wild and places a duty of care on owners and keepers to provide for the welfare needs of their animals. This includes providing access to food and water, preventing disease, providing appropriate accommodation, and allowing the animal the ability to express normal behaviour.

The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing Regulations (WATOK) 2015, states that all individuals and businesses involved in the slaughter of animals must take measures to minimise the suffering of animals during the slaughtering process, and a comprehensive framework for training, qualifications, and record-keeping to ensure compliance.

Key agencies

There are different agencies involved in the investigation and prosecution of animal welfare offences in the UK.

  • The RSPCA are the primary agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting animal welfare offences involving individuals and domestic or wild animals.
  • The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) is responsible for investigating and prosecuting animal welfare offences relating to farmed animals and animals in science.
  • The Food Standards Agency (FSA) monitor and enforce animal welfare compliance at approved slaughterhouses.
  • The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) prosecute (some) cases for the agencies referred to above.

Recent Cases

Poultry Slaughterhouse Prosecution

A poultry farm was found to have breached the requirement to spare avoidable pain and distress by failing to sever the carotid artery of chickens prior to placing them in a scalding tank. The case was interesting as on appeal it was clarified that the CPS did not have to prove that the owners of the business knew that unnecessary suffering was being caused. The owners were culpable simply because the breach occurred, and they had a duty to ensure that the business (as a whole) complied with the WATOK regulations. A breach occurring on the ‘shop floor’ was a matter for those directly responsible, and the owners/operators of the facility.

Cattle Farm prosecution

APHA inspectors found that cattle were being subject to unnecessary suffering due to prolonged neglect by a farmer who ignored past warnings and advice from authorities. The farmer’s conduct resulted in the death of some animals.

He was handed a suspended 20-week custodial sentence, ordered to pay £5,000 costs, and disqualified from owning farm animals for life.

Slaughterhouse prosecution

Slaughterhouses are required by law to have CCTV installed and to give access to FSA staff to review the footage.

Upon review, FSA discovered breaches including the use of electrical equipment to move animals, and young animals being left without food for extended periods. Some staff members did not have the required certificate of competence.

Following guilty pleas to several charges under WATOK 2015, the court handed down fines and costs orders totalling over £25,000.

Maximum Penalties for Animal Welfare Offences

Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, as amended in 2021, the maximum penalties for animal welfare offences are:

  • For offences relating to the duty of care owed to an animal, the maximum penalty is a fine of up to £20,000 and/or imprisonment for up to six months.
  • For offences relating to causing unnecessary suffering, the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine and/or imprisonment for up to five years.

For WATOK offences, the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine and a maximum three-month prison sentence.

Any penalty will depend on the circumstances of the case, including the severity of the offence, the level of harm caused to the animal, and any mitigating or aggravating factors.

In addition to fines and imprisonment, businesses may also face other penalties such as disqualification from keeping animals and forfeiture of equipment. The reputational damage that can arise from a conviction for animal welfare offences may also have significant consequences.


There are some statutory defences available where an animal is harmed. They include causing harm for the purposes of a lawful scientific experiment, cases where the harm is connected to lawful employment, lawful fishing, and acting in self-defence or to defend another person or property.

How we can assist

If you are facing an investigation or prosecution for an animal welfare offence, it is important to seek legal advice as soon as possible.

A solicitor with experience in animal welfare law can assist you in understanding the allegations, putting forward defence arguments, negotiating with prosecuting authorities, and representing you in court.

If you need assistance with an animal welfare matter, please get in touch with Ian Anderson on 0113 849 4011 or

About the Author

Ian Anderson


He has significant experience in fraud, tax, money laundering, health and safety, environmental and trading standards cases. Ian is renowned for his expertise in shotgun and firearms licensing and for dealing with matters arising out of the Proceeds of Crime Act in the Crown Court. 

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