SCOTLAND’S most senior advocate has warned that a new law on stealing dogs risks diluting the protections already in place.

MSPs will tomorrow debate a Members Bill that would see the canine crime made a specific offence, rather than being covered by the current common law on theft. 

The proposal, being brought forward by Conservative MSP Maurice Golden would impose a maximum sentence of five years. 

However, Roddy Dunlop QC, dean of the Faculty of Advocates, pointed out that currently, the maximum sentence for theft of any kind in Scotland is life. 

“I have two dogs, I love dogs. Anything that deters dog theft is a good thing,” the advocate told The Herald. “But it's already well recognised that this is a crime.”

“There is already in place in the common law of Scotland a significant deterrent. If one needs to make that more robust, then it can be done by way of reinforcing sentencing guidelines without the need to introduce a specific statutory crime.”

He said any court would take the value of the dog to the owner into account when sentencing.

Mr Dunlop added: “Admittedly, it's hard to imagine anyone being sent to prison for life for stealing a dog but that is notionally possible. If you introduce the statutory offence with a maximum sentence of five years, then you've actually diluted the protection you've not increased it.

He added: “It obviously plays to the crowd. Understandably, anyone that could be seen to be doing something in implementing the protection of something that most people would find abhorrent, it's entirely understandable. 

“And, politically, one can't criticise what he's doing. My sole point is that legally, it's not necessary because the protections are already there. The criminalisation is there. Already, the impact on the victim is already taken into account. So this isn't really going to do anything in terms of changing how the courts deal with offences like this.”

Mr Golden agreed that it was unlikely anyone would get a life sentence for stealing a dog, but said his Bill - which has attracted cross-party support - would set a more realistic maximum that would actually be used by the courts.

He also pointed out that dog charities across the UK estimate just one per cent of dog thefts end up being prosecuted.

The legislation, he added, would also recognise the welfare impact on the dog.

“That’s important for cases where a dog might not be worth much in monetary terms - say an older dog - and thus potentially attract a lighter sentence,” the Tory MSP said.

“But this isn’t just about sentencing - the current law makes no provision for dog theft to be recorded properly. That means the data we need to track and prevent thefts is missing and it’s harder to reunite dogs with their owners. Again, my Bill will seek to address that.

“Ultimately though, this is about how we value and protect an animal we say is our best friend. The law currently treats dogs as property - for many down owners that is just plain wrong. They are living creatures with inherent value beyond money, and they deserve better recognition and protection from the law.”

Mr Golden’s Bill will go out to consultation next month. “Mr Dunlop is welcome to contribute to that process, and if he would like to meet me to discuss further, that’s something I’d be delighted to do,” the MSP added.