Should charitable funds pay for these 'political' prosecutions?
Jamie Foster believes the RSPCA is behaving inappropriately in its role as private prosecutor.
Watching the debate in Parliament into the RSPCA's role as a private prosecutor it would have been easy to conclude that little of what was said was very surprising.
Simon Hart MP, who led the debate, was careful to point out that he was not challenging the RSPCA's right to bring private prosecutions, but rather raising questions that those of us who are used to dealing with the RSPCA have been aware of for some time.
He questioned the society's use of colossal amounts of charitable funds to bring high-profile political cases and wondered whether a campaigning charity was sufficiently independent to be able to properly determine whether a prosecution was in the public interest when it stood to gain commercially and politically from bringing the prosecution.
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Those speaking in support of the RSPCA avoided these questions, preferring to suggest that the only reason why they were being asked was the hunting lobby's dislike of the RSPCA bringing hunting prosecutions.
One MP suggested that enforcing the law was not a political act. This is not a sentiment that one would expect to hear from the Left if one was discussing the policing of the miners strike or 'stop and search' powers, but apparently spending £330,000 to bring a minor prosecution in the Magistrates Court that just happens to involve a hunt in the Prime Minister's constituency is not a political act.
Edward Garnier said that prosecution should not be used as a political weapon and, while no right-thinking person would disagree with that it is not something that is likely to surprise anybody.
It may have surprised some people to see how close the RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports have become, but again it is not that surprising to anyone who is aware of how far the RSPCA has moved towards an Animal Rights agenda.
One MP, however, did say something very significant and quite surprising if you are a lawyer who practices Animal Welfare law. Caroline Lucas was speaking as a vice president of the RSPCA. In her defence of the society she read out some figures about prosecutions and then told the House that in 2010 the RSPCA had issued 86,000 improvement notices under the Animal Welfare Act.
This figure is extremely significant because it is not true. The RSPCA issued no notices at all under the Animal Welfare Act. The Act does not give the RSPCA any powers to issue notices.
This is not to say that the RSPCA did not issue any notices, only that the notices that they issued were made up notices with no proper legal basis.
The RSPCA has had at least one prosecution thrown out on the basis that it was an abuse of process because of a made-up improvement notice that it had issued.
I believe that the notices are misleading and inappropriate, yet the RSPCA continues to issue them – 86,000 of them according to Ms Lucas.
In a sense this fact illustrates the reason that the debate was held in the first place. No-one argues that the RSPCA has not done huge amounts of good work in relation to animal welfare in the past.
But an organisation that is prepared, in my view, to bend the rules to the extent of pretending that their made-up improvement notices are properly issued under the Animal Welfare Act may not be best-placed to be making decisions about whether to bring private prosecutions.
The RSPCA is unique as a prosecutor. I am not aware of any other prosecutor, for example, that has been found to be in contempt of court as a result of one of its cases. As Caroline Lucas herself said in the course of the debate, "the CPS does not prosecute in the way that the RSPCA does". In many ways this remains the problem.
Jamie Foster is a Partner with Westcountry law firm Clarke Willmott LLP, specialising in countryside issues.