Bring the RSPCA to heel

The RSPCA is behaving like a delinquent corgi. Her Majesty should be advised to obtain a spiked choke chain and tug it sharply to heel. Yesterday we learnt that the organisation which proudly proclaims its Royal seal of approval has yet again racked up eye-watering costs, this time in bringing an unsuccessful prosecution against blameless members of the Avon Vale Hunt.

£50,000 of these costs are said to have been incurred by the RSPCA itself, with the defence costs (which the judge ordered should be met out of public funds) estimated to be about the same. The net result was that two men were fined trifling sums for disturbing a badgers’ sett. Not a single badger appears to have been harmed in any way. And no fox was even seen, let alone hunted by the Avon Vale Hunt, a somewhat embarrassing fact that the RSPCA eventually conceded, despite having purchased the expert assistance of the country’s most high profile vulpophile, Professor Stephen Harris.

Of course, even responsible prosecutors sometimes bring unsuccessful prosecutions. But instead of apologising for wasting so much money, the first reaction of the politically savvy Chief Executive Gavin Grant was to twitter, absurdly, “two Wilts huntsmen plead guilty to criminal offences of interfering with a badger sett. Will they ever learn to respect wildlife & the law?” Not a word about the abject failure of the main prosecution, or indeed about the costs of the whole exercise, much of which will have to be borne by the general public.

If private individuals want to litigate their personal disputes in court then they should be allowed to do so even if they squander a lot of money in the process. All lawyers are familiar, some rather cosily so, with the absurdly disproportionate dispute between neighbours in which hundreds of thousands of pounds are squandered in order to gain six inches of a leylandii hedge.

Supporters of the RSPCA might well say that it should be free to spend its money in the same way. After all, a lot of people choose to give it money and many of them – though perhaps not all – would be happy to see their largesse used to bring fox-hunters to justice. But the RSPCA is a wealthy nationwide organisation, comparable in size to a large PLC. It seems to have forgotten that its size, its wealth and its prized Royal Warrant come with responsibilities. And little is more irresponsible than instructing a phalanx of expensive lawyers and experts to prosecute a hopeless case, and then expecting the public to pick up the bill for the defence.

Money may be no object to the RSPCA, which is said to have an annual income of about £116M. When the Society was accused by a judge of incurring “staggering” costs of £330,000 in prosecuting the Heythrop Hunt in 2012, Gavin Grant, the Chief Executive, claimed that donations to the Society’s legal fund had “sky-rocketed.” This was one reason, no doubt, why the RSPCA felt wealthy enough to continue its doomed prosecution against the Avon Vale.

But those who are prosecuted by the RSPCA do not have such deep pockets. Nor do they have the reassurance that well-publicised judicial criticism of their behaviour will, perversely, lead to sentimental animal lovers handing over their savings to a “fighting fund” for their future benefit. With the knowledge that each day in court will cost thousands of pounds, and legal aid by no means always available, it is hardly surprising that many defendants do not have the stomach for the sort of Formula One level litigation that the RSPCA relishes. Where there is such a disproportionate imbalance between the wealth of a private prosecutor and the typical defendant, there is a real danger that the Society will cross the line between legitimate prosecuting and bullying.

And most importantly the RSPCA is a charity. It does not have to pay the tax that an ordinary individual or company pays. All of us, like it or not, are thereby subsidising the RSPCA. At a time when money for “ordinary” prosecutions (that is to say for things that are even more important than fox hunting, like murder, rape and burglary), and for legal aid, is scarcer than ever, using this charitable subsidy to finance expensive prosecutions for trivial offences strikes many as not just frivolous but  indefensible.

The £50,000 prosecution costs might sound like small change to those familiar with the well-publicised bills of “no win no fee” libel lawyers, or even with the bizarrely high, and one hopes one-off, costs of prosecuting Chris Huhne, but it is an astronomical figure by the standards of most criminal prosecutions. If the Crown Prosecution Service were to prosecute a 5 day child rape case in the Crown Court it might typically ask for costs of about £5,000 – £10,000. What is it about a Magistrates Court prosecution for the infinitely less serious offence of hunting that can possibly justify spending ten times that amount?

There is a perfectly competent Crown Prosecution Service which could bring prosecutions for animal cruelty where necessary. It would certainly do so far more economically than the RSPCA. In the Avon Vale case we are told that the Wiltshire CPS were in fact asked to consider prosecuting the huntsmen. It wisely decided not to do so, either because the evidence did not stack up, or because a prosecution was not in the public interest, or quite possibly both.

If the RSPCA is not content to leave prosecutions to the experts in the CPS, it should not expect to keep its charitable status and its Royal Warrant for very much longer.

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

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