Think when we talk of horses…

The passing of the Control of Horses Act 2015 reminded me of my early days in Law School, before the Animals Act 1971 became law. In those days the leading case on the liability an owner if his or her animal escaped onto the public highway was the 1947 House of Lords’ decision in Searle v Wallbank. Very early in the morning of All Fools’ Day 1944, a miner cycling home along a public highway with his lamp masked in accordance with wartime regulations collided with a horse. The evidence was that its escape resulted from the inadequacy of the hedges and fencing around the field in which it was kept.

Robert Lowe, a deservedly well-known lecturer at the College of Law in Lancaster Gate, made cases like this memorable to his students by giving them straplines. Once heard, they were difficult to forget. This one’s was: “The Case of the Leaping Mare embracing the Passing Cyclist.”

However the Control of Horses Act 2015 isn’t about horses escaping, but about horses intruding; or, to put it in 21st Century new-speak: “fly-grazing”. It is estimated that some 3,000 horses are wrongly put out to graze on fields when the owner of the horse has no permission or right to do so. The 2015 Act amends the 1971 Act by giving local authorities power to detain horses on public land (including commons, town and village greens and highways and their verges) and by conferring on the lawful occupiers and owners of the field in question the right to detain an unlawfully “fly-grazed” horse and, subject to some pretty stringent conditions, dispose of it; if it hasn’t be properly claimed in 96 hours. Disposal can include giving it to a charity or having it put down, as well as sale.

The 2015 Act only applies in England. The Welsh got there 14 months earlier, with the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014. However the Welsh Act confers powers only on local authorities. An aggrieved landowner or occupier in Wales must persuade the local authority to exercise its powers; because the Welsh Act confers none of the “self-help” powers that English private citizens will enjoy when the 2015 Act comes into force, on this side of the Wye, on 26 May 2015.