Government Ministers have put the RSPCA on “probation” over its prosecution policy for the next two years.
It is well known that the RSPCA regularly investigates and privately prosecutes alleged animal welfare offences; indeed, the prosecution of such alleged offences is an integral part of its strategy of enhancing and promoting animal welfare. However, the charity has been heavily criticised in recent years for carrying out unfair prosecutions and it came in for particularly strong criticism for its prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt in 2011.
RSPCA incurs “staggering” legal costs
In the Heythrop case, a prosecution was brought against five Defendants (represented by Clarke Willmott) under the Hunting Act 2004. The Defendants included not just the Hunt, but also the Hunt Master, the Huntsman, and two others. The Court ultimately dealt with the case by fining the Defendants, with the highest fine being £1,000 for each offence charged against the Hunt. However, the aspect of the case which generated the most publicity was the £326,980.23 worth of legal costs incurred by the RSPCA in prosecuting the case; a figure which the Trial Judge, District Judge Pattinson, described as “staggering”.
What followed was a media war, with the RSPCA coming in for severe criticism from various quarters for incurring such disproportionate costs in this case. Indeed, complaints were made to the Charity Commission regarding the animal welfare charity’s handling of the case.
As a result of the criticism, former Crown Prosecution Service Inspector Stephen Wooler, was commissioned to look into how the RSPCA prosecutes animal welfare cases. This investigation led to the publication of 140 page report in 2014.
It has now been reported that Ministers have turned down the request of a cross-party group of MPs who asked for the RSPCA to be stripped of its powers to prosecute animal welfare offences and for all such cases to be prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service. Reports indicate that the Government has decided to allow the RSPCA a probationary two year period to implement the recommendations of the Wooler Report instead.
It goes without saying that those who commit serious neglect or abuse of animals should be prosecuted through the Courts. However, the good work done by the RSPCA in this area over many years has been undermined recently by a succession of stories reflecting poorly on the charity. It is therefore welcome news that the government has now given the RSPCA a clear timeframe to put in place reforms designed to prevent a repeat of recent mistakes.