The RSPCA announced last week that it has decided to abandon its policy of bringing private criminal prosecutions for alleged animal abuse in order to avoid “further reputational damage”, arising from a string of high-profile failures at Court and criticism of how its over-zealous approach was leading to the persecution of innocent and vulnerable individuals.
I myself have experience of misguided attempts by the RSPCA to interfere in the Criminal Justice process, resulting in emotional distress and economic loss for all concerned; after all, if so many Police Officers don’t properly understand the law when it comes to necessity of arrest, can we really expect an animal welfare charity to do better when its staff starts ‘directing’ Police operations?
Take for example my client Courton Green, a Lincolnshire farmer who was subject to arrest in January 2018 on allegations of animal cruelty.
Mr Green ran a farm with approximately 3,000 sheep and 400 cattle. He was shocked to receive an early morning visit by two Officers of Lincolnshire Police who informed him he was under arrest; handcuffed him despite the fact that he was entirely compliant with their instructions, and whisked him away to Grantham Police Station without even allowing him the time to collect his glasses from a nearby truck.
At the Police Station my client was processed, searched and detained in a cell for several hours. During detention, he was obliged to provide his fingerprints, DNA sample and be photographed – all part of the degrading ‘prisoner’ process which can make even innocent people feel as though they are guilty in some way, or being labelled as criminals.
Mr Green had never previously been arrested and found it all to be a devastating experience.
In fact, his state of mental distress was such that the Police became concerned about his well-being, had him assessed by a doctor and he was then taken to Lincoln Hospital for a full mental health assessment.
Following the mental health assessment Mr Green was then allowed to return to his farm – primarily because of his responsibility for his livestock – in a state of ‘shell shock’; indeed Mr Green’s distress continued at such an intense level that over the next few days he experienced stark suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, he was able to overcome these feelings, but the experience of his arrest and detention (first in a Police Station, and then in a mental health ward) had left him in a very dark place.
Approximately 5 months later, Mr Green received a summons to attend court. He filed a plea of not guilty to the charges of animal cruelty against him, and his case proceeded to trial in January 2020, where he was indeed found not guilty.
At the trial, Judge Peter Veits ruled that my client’s arrest was unlawful, in the following terms –
“… the arrest had been unlawful as there had been no attempt … to invite [Mr Green] for interview, he had merely been arrested. Had he been so invited and refused then the necessity of arrest would have been established…”
Following his vindication at trial, Courton Green instructed me to pursue a claim for false imprisonment on his behalf against Lincolnshire Police.
Mr Green’s arrest and detention had taken place at the behest of the RSPCA, who suspected my client of mistreating an animal, and Police facilities were put fully at the disposal of the RSPCA to allow their inspector to conduct the interview of Mr Green, and then to detain him further whilst the RSPCA inspector consulted with her prosecution unit for a “charging decision.”
The evidence against my client centered around the testimony of an inexperienced farmhand who in January 2018 had witnessed what he believed to be Mr Green using a tractor to ‘behead’ a sick sheep; in fact the sheep was already dead, and Mr Green was carrying out a method of breaking its neck prior to skinning the animal (as the carcass was intended for use as dog food).
Judge Peter Veits at the criminal trial was scathing about the standard of evidence presented by the RSPCA against my client; they were entirely unable to offer evidence to establish “beyond reasonable doubt” that the sheep was not already dead when Mr Green used the tractor as described, and the charges against him were dismissed.
Not only was this a prosecution which should not have been pursued (costing Mr Green £70,000 in legal fees to defend himself), my client should never have been arrested in the first place. Sadly, Lincolnshire Police allowed themselves to be used in furtherance of the RSPCA’s agenda, in dereliction of their own duty to make an independent assessment of the evidence and circumstances, in order to decide whether there was sufficient reasonable suspicion and the requisite necessity to arrest (rather than, for example, arranging a voluntary interview for Mr Green to respond to the charges – which is what should have occured).
Whilst the CPS correctly declined to become involved in the misguided and ill-founded RSPCA prosecution of Mr Green, the Police regrettably allowed themselves to be used as unthinking pawns by an animal welfare charity seeking to operate in the style of a law enforcement agency, causing considerable hardship and suffering to my client as a result.
There have long been concerns that the RSPCA regards itself as ‘the Constabulary of animal welfare’, and projects a misleading image to the public through its use of quasi- Police uniforms, the ‘right to remain silent’ caution for ‘suspects’, and a policy of bestowing upon its staff titles of rank such as ‘Inspector’ and ‘Superintendent’ – despite the fact that it is entirely a private charitable organization with no special law enforcement powers at all. However, this approach may have historically contributed towards our actual Police Forces adopting a ‘collegiate’ relationship with the prestigious charity; a relationship which is often far too cosy and deferential on the part of the Police.
In 2016 the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee highlighted the “conflict of interest” between the RSPCA’s adopted role of prosecuting animal welfare cases, and its role of campaigning for animal welfare, fundraising and investigating these issues.
The MPs on the Select Committee called for the charity to cease pursuing private prosecutions in cases of animal cruelty, after a report into its activities, but unfortunately this recommendation, and numerous criticisms by members of the judiciary deeply unimpressed by the standard of RSPCA-led prosecutions, fell on deaf ears, and was not enough to save Mr Green from being put through the ordeal of wrongful arrest, detention and prosecution.
As Mr Green’s Defence barrister, Sara-Lise Howe, said after his Trial “the RSPCA cannot be trusted to fairly and proportionately interpret farming legislation.”
Of greater concern to me however, is the fact that our Police Forces can often not be trusted to fairly and proportionately interpret policing legislation. On ‘necessity’ grounds alone, Lincolnshire Police should have refused to arrest and detain Courton Green, and then a great deal of the pain of this sorry saga would have been avoided.
Having brought a claim on behalf of Mr Green, I have secured an admission of liability from the Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police, and settlement negotiations are ongoing.
Perhaps this process, combined with the RSPCA’s declared change of policy, will finally get the message through to the Police that they would be well advised to treat RSPCA requests to facilitate a person’s arrest with the same level of detachment and skepticism with which they would approach that of any other group of private campaigners.