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RSPCA face questions over cost of prosecuting PM's local hunt

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 19, 2012

The Heythrop, pictured on a New Year's Day meet at Stow-on-the-Wold.  Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance wonders at the RSPCA's prosecution

The Heythrop, pictured on a New Year's Day meet at Stow-on-the-Wold. Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance wonders at the RSPCA's prosecution

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The Heythrop case put the hunting debate back on the front pages. Tim Bonner gives his view.

On Monday in Oxford Magistrates' Court two men pleaded guilty to four charges, each under a minor piece of legislation which carries a maximum penalty of £5,000. Their company – one was an employee, the other a director – pleaded guilty to four identical offences. The judge fined one of the men £250 for each offence and the other £450. The company was handed four £1,000 fines.

You might think that is the end of a not-very-interesting story but you would be wrong, because the offence the two pleaded guilty to was breach of the Hunting Act and the company was the Heythrop Hunt Ltd.

If a prosecution involving a hunt was not enough to get media juices flowing, the Heythrop Hunt happens to be the only one based in David Cameron's constituency – and the Prime Minister is known to have hunted with the Heythrop hounds..

Such a coincidence was bound to put the story on the front pages but the fact that it was David Cameron's local hunt was no coincidence. The two men, Julian Barnfield and Richard Sumner, and the Heythrop Hunt were not investigated by the police and prosecuted by the CPS, but targeted by the RSPCA. Of the 175 packs of foxhounds in the UK, the RSPCA chose to bring only one private prosecution – against the Heythrop. Nor was this the first attempt to prosecute the Heythrop and huntsman Julian. In 2008 the CPS brought four charges against him based on allegations by animal rights activists, but that prosecution failed. Last year the RSPCA summonsed Julian on another two charges, but again the prosecution failed.

So this year the charity returned with a prosecution unprecedented since the Hunting Act came into force in 2005. It brought no fewer than 52 charges against the hunt, its masters and employees, detailing ten allegations of illegal hunting.

The trial was due to start last week and would have lasted until the end of February. The cost of defending the case would have been well into six figures and then there were the RSPCA's costs to consider. There was clearly a big legal team at work and it did not look cheap. The RSPCA did not use its in-house solicitors, but hired top-end city firm Fishburns, which was clearly ready to spend whatever it took to get a conviction.

Julian and Richard took a pragmatic decision that defending such a big case was practically and financially almost impossible. They accepted that on four occasions they had allowed hounds to chase foxes that had jumped up while they were hunting artificial trails. The RSPCA dropped all other charges against them and against two others who had originally been prosecuted.

District Judge Tim Pattinson noted that in 500 hours' hunting last season the four allegations totalled just 15 minutes of criminality. He then handed down the fines, at the low end of the scale, and came on to the sticky issue of costs.

The RSPCA had been extremely reluctant to divulge how much it had spent on the case and when the judge calculated the total it was clear why – it had spent £326,980.23 on solicitors, barristers and associated costs. The judge called the figure "staggering", asking whether "the public may feel RSPCA funds could be more usefully employed". While Judge Pattinson was only commenting on this case, his question has wider implications. Increasingly, the RSPCA is becoming not simply an organisation focused on protecting animal welfare, but a political campaigning group promoting an animal rights agenda. New chief executive Gavin Grant has already ruffled feathers with his threat to "name and shame" people involved in the badger cull trials and by calling for boycotts against farmers in cull areas. Judge Pattinson's question can equally be applied here: is such a campaign the best use of RSPCA funds? Indeed, is it in the best interests of animal welfare?

There is something monstrously hypocritical about such profligacy and waste when the RSPCA is placing fundraising advertisements , claiming that "animal cruelty, neglect and suffering are reaching unprecedented levels in modern times". Paying a handful of lawyers more than £300,000 for a few weeks' work which had no impact on animal welfare, months after announcing 130 redundancies to address deficits on its £115 million annual turnover, suggests an organisation that has lost its way.

RSPCA membership has plummeted to just 29,000 and, while it will not disappear overnight, unless it refocuses on real animal welfare issues rather than a political animal rights agenda it will progressively lose the support of the moderate majority.

Tim Bonner is Director of Campaigns for the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance

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  • rayglos  |  December 21 2012, 3:57PM

    Vulcan asks why should the RSPCA face questions over prosecutions? - why shouldn't they? Those that donate to the charity have the right to know how their money is being spent - I doubt if the RSPCA would have openly admitted how much this case cost them, or they would have stuck it in small letters in the corner of a newsletter, so well done Judge for bringing it up where every can see it. I understand that the RSPCA have recently had to lay off staff due to funding loss, just think of the wages that £330,000 would have paid, or the extra buildings for housing animals, food, care etc etc that could have been provided. Instead they chose to persue the death of a single fox, which being vermin would probably have been shot anyway, and then possibly left wounded to die a slow painful death. Would they spend that amount on a rat being chased and killed by terriers? I doubt it, and I wonder why?

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  • Kindanimal  |  December 21 2012, 1:29PM

    Well done RSPCA - it's about time these persistent law breakers were brought to book. They like to believe they're above the law and can carry on persecuting our wildlife illegally whenever they want. It's illegal to hunt with a pack of dogs so who do these people actually think they are to ignore the law? Such arrogance is unbelievable. I hope this is the first prosecution of many and I have already increased my donation to the RSPCA for this veery reason.

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  • PaulKeeley  |  December 21 2012, 12:22PM

    Good Morning To The Heythrop, I have left my contact details at the local pub, as I do hope that I can offer to pay towards the fines issued. I am sure you have a supporters pot somewhere that we can all ensure the individuals are not left out of pocket having acted with such common-sense. Rgds Paul Keeley

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  • MikeMerry  |  December 20 2012, 1:13AM

    http://tinyurl.com/c9ty9bs They say you get the legal service that you pay for. The furore following the revelation that the RSPCA spent a 'staggering' £330,000 in the prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt shows that the RSPCA certainly do. There is supposed to be equality of arms in criminal cases. Mr. Barnfield the Heythrop huntsman has discovered that in RSPCA cases the Defendant is left in the position of David opposing a Goliath with massive resources and unlimited funds. When funds run out the Defendant is left with no choice but to plead guilty, as Mr. Barnfield did, or to represent themselves and risk an award of massive costs against them. The RSPCA even applies for, and gets, charges put on the property of those who cannot raise the funds to pay their awarded costs. Not only do people plead guilty to defendable cases, there are a large number of people who choose to accept an RSPCA caution rather than face the cost of going to court and defending themselves. Worse, a proportion of those accept cautions purely to get elderly and much loved dogs and other animals back with the threat hanging over them that it will be 12 – 18 months before a contested case reaches a final hearing with their animal left in kennels and maybe even dying there. Gavin Grant of the RSPCA claims a 98% success rate in cases they bring and claims that the RSPCA prosecuted the Heythrop Hunt themselves because the CPS returns cases to them on the grounds that there is not sufficient evidence. The RSPCA claim to apply the Code for Crown Prosecutors. Clearly they apply it in a very different way from the CPS. There are questions to be answered: How many cases have the RSPCA referred to the CPS? Did they refer them directly or via the police? What do the CPS say about the cases they refused to prosecute? What does this say about the cases the RSPCA bring regularly in the courts? How does the claimed 98% success rate vary between unrepresented Defendants, Defendants represented by a local solicitor and Defendants represented by specialist solicitors, barristers and expert witnesses? How many of the claimed 98% lost by default because they misunderstood and failed to attend the first hearing? What check is there on the RSPCA's claimed success rates? Criminological research certainly casts doubts on some of their claims. This prosecution highlights the dangers of allowing campaigning organisations to act as prosecutors with the inevitable damage to the public perception of the law and the legal system. The cost to the public purse has become far too high. Police time and facilities are used because the RSPCA have no powers. It is the police who have to apply for a warrant. Police stations are used to interview people. When the RSPCA lose a case they ask for their costs to be paid out of central funds. If the Defendant is found guilty and cannot pay they ask for the expert witness costs to be paid out of central funds. Where is the incentive for a prosecutor to ensure that a case has a realistic chance of success if this is not stopped? A hidden cost of RSPCA prosecutions is the cost to the NHS treating people for stress or dealing with suicides. There is the cost of the breakup of families resulting from the stress of the raid and prosecution Then there is the cost of time off work and loss of jobs as people become ill and unable to cope. Finally, it is ironic that such a massively expensive case has been brought at a time when the RSPCA is cutting costs, no longer takes owner surrendered animals or stray dogs and kills 50% of all animals that go into their care.

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  • Mercy_Full  |  December 19 2012, 11:44PM

    Instead of casting aspersions at the RSPCA's use of its own resources, we should be questioning why a charity should have been in the position of driving this prosecution at all, rather than the police and the CPS. The Heythrop Hunt broke the law and fortunately there were hunt monitors present who recorded the criminal activity and now the transgressors have been brought to justice. Thank goodness for hunt monitors- have you any idea how much courage it takes to be a hunt monitor?

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  • rayglos  |  December 19 2012, 10:36PM

    What a utter waste of such a vast sum of money. If the RSPCA have that sort of cash to waste why didn't they donate it to the other struggling animal charities. I certainly will not donate to them again. Not only may they long term have "shot themselves in the foot" over it, but are also in danger of turning themselves into primarily another town v countryside supported organisation, starting with the stands they have at some big Country & Horse Shows of which are attended by mostly pro-hunting people, it will be interesting to see how they fare at them next year.

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  • Spindleberry  |  December 19 2012, 7:56PM

    So, Mr Bonner, if someone shops for 500 hours and only shoplifts for 15 minutes of that time, it would be OK would it?

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  • vulcan  |  December 19 2012, 4:38PM

    Why should the RSPCA face questions over a rightful prosecution? Why did'nt the judge keep his opinion on the charity's legal costs to himself? Does Judge Tim Pattison complain about the fees involved in other cases he tries? Well done RSPCA

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  • Roger_S  |  December 19 2012, 4:07PM

    I think bigger questions should be asked of the police and the CPS and why they haven't prosecuted members of this hunt before. It doesn't require much effort to find on Youtube further video taken by POWA (the anti-hunt monitors responsible for this video footage) showing members of this hunt committing acts of criminal damage and public order offences up to and including violent disorder. Just because the Brooks and various other influential people ride with this hunt doesn't mean Oxfordshire Police should simply ignore such outrageous criminal behaviour. Questions should also be asked of the Countryside Alliance who hold the largest and most comprehensive database of anti-hunt activists in the country. Why do they require this? How do hunt thugs manage to find home addresses of activists so easily, when frankly the average grass root hunt supporter can barely tie their own shoelaces?

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  • DaveBr  |  December 19 2012, 2:23PM

    So in 500hrs of lawful activiity there were 15mins of criminality. Which is fine - isn't it? I wonder what other area of activity we could apply that thinking to. Are there crimes we ought to discount on the grounds that the person has otherwise lead a blameless life. Things like death by dangereous driving, theft, criminal damage etc etc but that would just be silly wouldn't it? Oh and just in case you wondered - I have no problems with controlling fox numbers but am not convinced hunting with hounds is the best way

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