The case of a postman whose fingers were bitten by a dog as he put them through a household letterbox provided an opportunity for the High Court to issue a public reminder of the heavy legal responsibilities that go with dog ownership.
Following the incident, the owner of the Boxer-type dog was prosecuted by Royal Mail. He was charged with being the owner of a dog that caused the postman injury whilst dangerously out of control, contrary to Section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. He was, however, acquitted by a district judge.
The judge found that the postman committed a trespass when he put his fingers through the letterbox to deliver mail. Noting that the dog had barked, she ruled that the postman failed to exercise due diligence for his own safety. He did not deploy a postal peg which had been provided to him for such eventualities and which would have made it unnecessary for him to use his fingers.
In upholding Royal Mail’s challenge to that outcome, the Court noted that Parliament had chosen to put the burden on those who own or are in charge of dogs to ensure that effective steps are taken to ensure they do not cause injury.
The Act was introduced to tackle the perceived problem of unruly and savage dogs. It created criminal offences of strict liability in the sense that prosecutors are not required to prove fault on the part of a dog owner in order to obtain a conviction. It is no defence for dog owners to say that a victim was at fault or that they had no prior knowledge of an offending dog’s dangerousness.
The Court ruled that the postman was no trespasser. In the absence of a warning notice, the letterbox was an open invitation to him to post mail through it. He had implied permission to insert his fingers and his failure to use the postal peg was irrelevant. The Act did not permit the dog owner to run a defence that the postman failed to exercise due diligence.
The Court noted that its ruling did not lead to unacceptable consequences and, in particular, did not mean that homeowners are unable to leave their dogs unattended. Simple measures could be taken to avoid similar incidents, such as installation of a wire guard or adjustment to the height of a letterbox.