The law in Northern Ireland could be changed as a result of the case of Hank the dog who was seized by Belfast City Council over fears he was a pit bull and could be a danger to the public.

Two-year-old Hank was removed by dog wardens last July and taken for testing following concerns from members of the public. Under Article 25(a) of the Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 some types of dog, including pit bulls, are deemed inherently dangerous and can be destroyed (as in England and Wales).

After Hank was seized from joint owners, Joanne Meadows and Leonard Collins, a high profile campaign was mounted to secure his release. It attracted support from across the world, including from various well known celebrities. Indeed, an online petition to have Hank returned was signed by more than 280,000 people.

As a result, the council has been in correspondence with Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen and has asked for an urgent review of breed specific legislation (BSL). Ms McIlveen appears to have responded by confirming that she would consider trying to change the law given the lessons that were learned by the council last year when dealing with Hank’s case.

The council made clear in its correspondence that tragic events that had occurred in England. They demonstrated the need for effective controls in respect of dangerous dogs. However, the council also argued that the removal of animals which had never posed a danger to the public from their owners should, clearly, be avoided. This is not rocket science but something the current legislation seems to struggle with.

The council is now reviewing the handling of the case. Ms McIlveen’s private secretary has written back to the council, with regard to the review, and a copy has been published on their website.

In the letter, she said that We would be interested in learning of the findings of that review, and will then consider whether the existing legislative provisions could be reviewed to allow the impact of seizure on dogs and their owners, to be more effectively managed, while ensuring appropriate protection for the public.”

A court in Belfast heard that Hank had been assessed by an expert to be a pit bull terrier-type. However, it was recommended that he be placed on the council’s exemption register. Hank was then released on the condition he underwent behavioural training and was kept on a lead and muzzled in public.

Mr Collins welcomed the latest move. He said, “I very much back the call for legislation review; very few pieces of legislation are as unpopular as BSL”.

“This stems from both the implementation of the legislation by the council and the abstract and grossly unfair nature of the legislation itself.

“As it stands, we will see a repeat of Hank’s case, something nobody wants. It is ludicrous that another family should be put through this when the desire for change is so overwhelming.”

It is hoped that ministers in England and Wales will closely follow what is happening in Belfast given BSL legislation is exceptionally unpopular here too. If not, then dogs will continue to be removed from their owner’s and held pending the legal system making a decision (never a quick process) with regards to what to do about a dog that may never have posed a risk to anyone in any event. Of course, given the scientifically proven bond a dog has with its owner, and the stress placed on a dog (and it’s owners) when taken away, you would have thought that the government would be able to come up with a better piece of legislation to protect the public from dangerous dogs, rather than the inherently flawed legislation that is currently in place and not even supported by most of the professionals tasked with enforcing the Dangerous Dogs Act.

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For all initial enquiries relating to Canine Law please contact Emma McGrath on or by telephone on 01775 662662. Emma can arrange a free 20 minute telephone appointment on all matters and provide advice for going forward. Please note that if you have a suffered a dog bite injury you will need to visit our personal injury team.

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