MORNING NEWS COUNTRY: Do costly prosecutions show hunt ban has run its course?
On September 12 I attended court to represent David Parker, the Huntsman of the Seavington, who had the unenviable task of pleading guilty to a Hunting Act offence.
David joins a very exclusive band of huntsmen from registered hunts to be convicted under a piece of legislation that Tony Blair later described – having introduced it – as a mistake. There have been seven huntsmen convicted to date who have not successfully appealed.
David, as all of my huntsman clients have been, is a delightful man who has devoted his life to hunt service for very little financial reward. Oddly that was to help him in the proceedings.
The Hunting Act came into force in February 2005. It should have had time to bed in by now and ought to be a run-of-the-mill offence. It is not for two reasons. Firstly it has almost entirely failed to generate proceedings against the people it was intended to target.
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Registered Hunts simply haven’t been prosecuted in significant numbers despite the efforts of the campaigning organisations who make it their life’s work to achieve this end. Of those who have been prosecuted an extraordinary percentage have been acquitted, which is no mean feat in the Magistrates’ Court, I can tell you.
Secondly the way that the offence is approached by those who investigate it is unlike anything else currently happening in any area of law enforcement. David Parker’s offence provides a remarkable illustration of just how odd this approach is.
A Hunting Act offence is a summary offence that can only be dealt with by way of a fine. It is a less serious offence than, say, speeding, as there is no danger of any person being harmed by its commission. In the moral pantheon of the Criminal Law it falls somewhere between dropping litter and not paying your TV licence.
Despite this, last year, a large scale anti-hunt covert surveillance operation was conducted in Dorset. Ex-policemen and covert operatives from the International Fund for Animal Welfare hid in bushes during the hunting season and captured thousands of hours of footage gained from monitoring the local hunts at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The total result of this operation was two minutes of footage of David Parker riding his horse across two fields. A fox had been seen on the DVD evidence that was obtained. Hounds were clearly pursuing the fox although they never got within sight of it. The fox escaped.
David Parker, who was a couple of minutes behind the action, had to plead guilty because when he was shown by a foot follower which direction the fox went in he did not stop the hounds but, in a moment of madness blew his horn and encouraged them on. No fox was harmed in the making of the film that was presented to the court.
If IFAW, who captured the video, had done the right thing, they would have provided the evidence to the police to investigate and then respected whatever decision the police made about whether and how to take action. I understand from the solicitor prosecuting David’s case that IFAW say they informed the police on the day of the offence, but it is clear that they took the decision that it would be more fruitful to provide the evidence to the RSPCA.
It is often claimed by those opposed to hunting that the police will not investigate Hunting Act offences. This is not true. The police have investigated hundreds of such offences and the CPS has brought the majority of the proceedings against registered hunts.
The problem for the anti-hunt campaigners is that the police will disclose the evidence that has been obtained to the suspect’s solicitor and, if the suspect admits the offence then it is likely they will offer him a police caution rather than prosecute him. A caution is not accompanied by the media fanfare and subsequent donation-raising opportunities that a court case brings.
In David’s case the RSPCA refused to provide me with the evidence that they said would identify David as the Huntsman, which is something I have never experienced in all the police investigations I have been involved in. When they brought a prosecution against David they had to let me have this evidence, and, having seen it, David indicated that he would plead guilty. I then invited the RSPCA to issue a caution rather than prosecute.
I am aware that the RSPCA often cautions suspects because, on the Cambridge branch of the RSPCA’s own website they advertise the fact that they issued 78,000 cautions and improvement notices in 2012. The RSPCA issue cautions for Animal Welfare offences which include occasions where animals have suffered. They will caution someone who leaves their dog in car on a hot summer’s day, for example.
The RSPCA declined to caution David Parker. In court they said that they would not issue a caution for a Hunting Act offence where a mammal was not harmed and it was the first offence alleged against a huntsman. The RSPCA claimed this was in the public interest.
It would appear that in fact this is another example of a campaigning charity prioritising its own private political interests in criminal proceedings which, in my view, is inexcusable. Some may say, quite properly, that my view ought not to hold much weight. We now know from a leaked RSPCA internal memo that my concern about overtly political prosecutions is also shared by the RSPCA’s own Deputy Chairman Paul Draycott.
So at a time of austerity the RSPCA used the public resources of a court to bring proceedings that the proper authorities are unlikely to have brought. In court the RSPCA asked for an order that David Parker should pay their costs of £4,783.
While this falls far short of the nearly £330,000 they were looking for in the Heythrop case it remains a staggering sum when compared with the costs of a couple of hundred pounds that the CPS would have applied for under similar circumstances. In the end the court fined David £500 due to his limited means and awarded the RSPCA £500 of the costs that it had claimed. This means that the prosecution cost the RSPCA £4,283 and they are now creeping towards the half million pound mark in regard to costs that have not been recovered in prosecutions since the Heythrop case. This is not an insignificant amount of donated money that some feel could more properly have been used to help animals in need.
The court also ordered that David Parker pay a victim’s surcharge of £50. I hope that this sum makes its way eventually to the fox who will no doubt spend it on chicken.
Overall the case again begs the question of how long it will be right to allow the RSPCA to subvert the criminal process for its own political ends, and in this regard only time will tell.
The one thing IFAW’s covert surveillance operation proved beyond doubt is that almost no-one is breaching the Hunting Act, which is maybe one more reason for repealing it and saving the criminal justice system the burden of these rather unusual cases.