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Animal Law, Animal Welfare, Animal Welfare Act 1999, Farming Practices

MAF’s ‘Arms Length’ Approach to Prosecutions

Just last week, we posted about the SPCA’s difficulties in pursuing prosecutions under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 (the AWA).  An article in the Herald on Monday (‘Hundreds of Cases of Livestock Mistreatment Reported’) highlights just how little the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF), is doing by way of prosecutions.  But, as the Police generally do not prosecute animal welfare offences, MAF is the other main body, along with the SPCA, that is empowered to prosecute under the AWA.

In the year to November 2009, MAF received 689 complaints about the mistreatment of animals, and investigated 615.  They brought two prosecutions.

In 2008, there were 948 complaints in total, of which 824 were investigated.  No prosecutions were brought.

So, out of 1439 investigations in two years, only two resulted in prosecutions. This is a rate of less than 0.4%.

Curiously, the story was re-spun the next day with the title: ‘Big Fines for Farmers Who Let Their Livestock Starve’ moving the sentences imposed to the head of the article and the fact that there were only two prosecutions in two years to the second half of the piece.

The two successful prosecutions were for the following egregious cases of neglect [from the Tuesday Herald article]:

‘North Canterbury farmer John Dalmer has been fined $17,500 and ordered to pay court and inquiry costs of more than $60,000 for letting his stock starve.

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) and animal welfare officials visited Dalmer’s farm in July 2006 after a complaint about the lack of feed for nearly 4000 sheep. They said the animals were “grossly underfed”. Four cattle and 380 sheep had to be euthanised.

Dalmer’s case was one of two MAF prosecutions last year over mistreatment of livestock.

In the other case, a Central Hawkes Bay farmer was fined $12,000 and ordered to pay almost $10,000 in costs after a complaint over starving animals.

He was also disqualified from owning or controlling production animals for at least 10 years.’

MAF officials say that prosecutions: ‘…are a last resort.  The department generally focuses on educating and working with farmers.’

To refer to prosecutions as a ‘last resort’ is something of an understatement. Although we don’t necessarily advocate blanket prosecutions, they could certainly be used less reluctantly than they are at present.

This highlights one of the great problems in the regulation of animal welfare in New Zealand – the fact that the primary role of the agency responsible for enforcement is to foster the agricultural industry. This leads to obvious conflicts in many areas; to the extent that interventions in animal welfare are usually publicly advocated only in cases where economic interests are affected, for example where New Zealand’s image in export markets may be down-graded. As things stand, many farmers are allowing animals in their care to starve to death because ‘times are tough’, the fact that this is allowed to continue except on a truly massive scale lays bare the role of MAF as an assistant to agricultural industry rather than a guardian of animal interests.

MAF are the only government-funded prosecutor and we should demand that unless a separate – less conflicted – enforcement agency is created, they actually exercise their mandate to prosecute those who cause suffering of animals through crimes of commission or omission.

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.


5 thoughts on “MAF’s ‘Arms Length’ Approach to Prosecutions

  1. Another key point arises from the MAF quote. Prosecution is a last resort? Imagine a police officer saying that about any other offending! ‘Well, we investigates 900 assaults this year, and prosecuted two. Prosecution is a last resort, after all. We work with the offenders to promote non-violent conflict resolution…’

    Even though an approach like that – in the case of some minor assaults – may have benefits, a public outcry would immediately result. The police (and the Crown prosecutors) are supposed to investigate crimes, and when crimes are unearthed and offenders identified, prosecute the offenders, unless no good purpose would be served by doing so.

    So why is the approach different for the AWA? It’s a piece of criminal law. Breaches of the Act are crimes – so why aren’t they investigated and prosecuted as crimes?

    I think it’s more than the conflict of interest you have identified. It’s about how ‘we’ perceive animal welfare offences. They aren’t seen as real crimes. The victims are ‘only’ animals, who have no rights. There are no human victims whose rights are violated. So, the crimes are somehow different and less important than other crimes – even though the Act says nothing of the sort.

    This, to me, is symptomatic of how animals’ interests are constantly second-best to human interests (which we term ‘rights’).

    Posted by David Tong | 12 January 2010, 5:13 pm
  2. Absolutely. This dis-value of animals is inherent in seeing them as units of production rather than sentient beings.

    I’ve made the point before (http://thesolution.org.nz/2010/01/04/tougher-penalties-proposed-for-wilful-ill-treatment-of-animals/) that animal welfare offences aren’t seen as ‘real’ crimes.

    I maintain, however, that the main reason MAF is bringing prosecutions only as ‘a last resort’ is because it conflicts with their primary purpose of assisting industrial agriculture. Also, it can’t help that they have only a handful of inspectors to cover the entire country.

    Posted by Vernon Tava | 12 January 2010, 8:56 pm
  3. Check out the following to see how MAF operates: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/3223921/Consultant-sentenced-for-animal-ill-treatment

    A visit in July – dead and starving cattle. Formal notices throughout July and August… more dead and starving cattle. September 2007, MAF obtained a temporary enforcement order that direct guy to comply with the instructions given by MAF investigators. Only when repeated orders are breached does a prosecution ensue.

    Now, imagine this was an ordinary guy starving his dogs. Wouldn’t they be seized immediately and a prosecution initiated? Crazy…

    Posted by Peter Sankoff | 13 January 2010, 12:51 pm


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