We've written before about the RSPCA – see here. We're sure that at grass roots level, where local branches are not funded from the organisation's vast and well-filled coffers, there are some nice and well-meaning people. But the organisation itself is deeply corrupt and self-seeking, and an archetype of bullying officialdom. Except that in this case, it isn't “officialdom”, is it, because the RSPCA has no legal standing and its “officers” are just ordinary members of the public (despite their imitation-policeman uniforms) with no special knowledge, skills, powers or rights ...
So it was no surprise to read in this week's Sunday Times that “The RSPCA faces accusations that it is bullying and intimidating vets after lodging complaints against them with their professional body.
It has targeted vets who have given expert testimony on behalf of defendants prosecuted by the RSPCA for animal cruelty. The vets include a former president of the Royal Society of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).
The charity says the move is justified partly because the vets concerned are well known expert witnesses who often appear on behalf of defendants but mainly because expert evidence has been criticised in court hearings by judges (so what is the “charity” complaining about, exactly? What is the offence these vets have committed? That they are well known, is that wrong? That they are experts? I suppose that could be inconvenient for the RSPCA, who would prefer everyone to be ignorant so they could just get on and do what they like. Or is it because the vets have the temerity to give evidence on behalf of people the RSPCA has already decided are guilty? That they are, therefore, setting themselves up in opposition to the RSPCA which has taken on itself the mantle of sole arbiter on all matters animal? We can see how that might be inconvenient - GOS).
This week, however, a conference organised by the British Veterinary Forensic and Law Association will hear vets and lawyers raise concerns over what they see as deliberate attempts by the RSPCA to deter vets from testifying for defendants. Jonathan Rich, a barrister whose specialities include defending people charged with welfare offences, has been attacked in the past by animal rights activists. He said “Animal cruelty cases often turn on the advice provided by independent vets. It is vital vets should not be deterred by the threat of complaints to the RCVS or other legal tactics. The RSPCA's behaviour risks creating an environment where people accused of animal welfare offences will not be able to get a proper defence”. Which is, of course, exactly the environment the RSPCA would love to create.
Bill Cartmell, a vet from Fareham, Hampshire, is one of those being investigated by the RCVS. He said “Anyone who tries to defend people against the RSPCA now risks professional complaints. In one case where I was an expert witness the RSPCA instructed its solicitors to write to the courts before the hearing to say that I should not be allowed to testify because I was biased. They have no right to determine who stands as an expert witness: they are just a charity. The reality is that they are very rich and are effectively using their money to act as a self-appointed vigilante group.”
Colin Vogel, 64, a vet in Fakenham, Norfolk, who will be among the speakers at this week's meeting, has testified in more than 100 cases, mostly for people facing prosecution for cruelty by the RSPCA. He said “In my case the RSPCA have lodged complaints about me to the Law Society, where I am an accredited expert witness, and also with the RCVS and with the Society of Expert Witnesses. All those complaints were rejected but I have used the Data Protection Act to see their files on me, which appear to show that they are trying to gather evidence for further complaints”.
John Parker, RCVS president in 2005, appeared for the defence in the trial of a man accused of cruelty to horses. He said “I am over 70 years old now and this case has been hanging over me for more than two years”. Madeleine Forsyth, a vet from North Yorkshire who gave expert testimony for the defence in the same case, will describe this week how she faces a rare “wasted costs” application that could force her to pay an estimated £15,000. He said “I have given evidence in a number of cases, and the RSPCA does not like that”.
The report goes on the explain that many British Veterinary Association members have raised the question of the RSPCA's attempts to discredit those who speak against them, that it had met the RSPCA and would shortly be discussing the matter with the RCVS.
The RSPCA has an income of about £110 million a year, mostly from legacies and donations. Critics suggest that its enthusiasm for court cases is because they generate publicity that helps to maintain their income.
We couldn't have a page about the RSPCA without a
picture of an animal. This is an animal. Cute or what?
The Our Dogs website has a fascinating and hard-hitting interview with the prominent barrister quoted by the Sunday Times ...
Jonathan Rich, a barrister and animal welfare specialist, has over the past twenty years defended well over 200 people - mainly farmers, huntsmen, kennel owners and dog breeders. In 2007, he famously and successfully defended pet shop owner Simon Gilbert three times, and recently acted for Paul Shotton, Labour’s former deputy Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, and his wife Annette during their successful appeal (Shotton was prosecuted by the RSPCA for cruelty to his pet dog, which was old and dying. It was revealed after the case that the original complaint had come from a disgruntled neighbour who, in effect, made it up; and that the BNP, opposed to Shotton's political activities, were in some way instrumental in ensuring that the RSPCA brought the case against him - GOS).
Rich says “If you do keep animals, then common decency dictates that you must ensure they are properly looked after. If you do, then you’ll probably be okay, unless you are in a ‘high risk’ group. Putting these to one side, most problems with the RSPCA happen when people are too old, too sick or too inexperienced to look after animals properly. Disability Now did a huge piece last year on the impact of the RSPCA on pensioners and the disabled. Rachel Hurst and Anna Bird, who know a lot about the subject, contributed and said some very worrying things. RSPCA v Child C case was a terrifying prosecution, and I agree with the remarks the child’s barrister, Nick Tucker, made afterwards to the BBC’s File on 4.
“The case that I did for Roberta Mitchell is a good example perhaps. She was raided by the RSPCA and the police while she was spending her time at her dying husband’s bedside. She was under terrible strain and I could never see the CPS prosecuting her. Pat Seager’s case was a disgrace. MPs like Frank Field and Roger Gale have done some very powerful points to the BBC and elsewhere. Many others have voiced similar concerns too.
“The RSPCA is just too embedded in New Labour, though ... everyone knows New Labour took £1m off the Political Animal Lobby (PAL) to abolish hunting.
“The RSPCA ... has a ‘euthanasia’ policy ... people who do not ‘euthanase’ animals that are in distress are putting themselves in danger of an RSPCA private prosecution, unless their vet supervises very closely. It also means that animals that stay in kennels too long get euthanased, as they become impossible to adopt after a time. I’ve never really understood how euthanasia was compatible with animal rights, but animal rights activists generally advocate euthanasia for all animals - humans included.
“The RSPCA is, contrary to appearances, a private organisation. Some people are terrified of the RSPCA, and there is absolutely no need to be. No RSPCA employee, so far as I am aware, has any special powers or is even an inspector for the purposes of the Animal Welfare Act. Indeed, if they are, I want to know about it! The title ‘RSPCA Inspector’ is just a job title, given to an RSPCA employee working for the inspectorate department when they finish their twelve weeks of training.
“The society gives some of its more senior employees even more impressive sounding titles: ‘Chief Superintendent’ and the like. However, they are all just job titles; it’s not like the police - RSPCA inspectors are not even constables. To think otherwise is a natural mistake to make. One problem which is regularly encountered is a police officer who thinks that the RSPCA is some sort of agency, or that its employees somehow have more powers than ordinary members of the public. If a police officer tells you, or behaves as if the RSPCA is an agency or has special powers, then that policeman needs to be corrected.
“Paul and Annette Shotton were both arrested by the police at the request of the RSPCA. In fact, I’ve had several clients - perhaps the best known of them was Craig Sargent - who were arrested purely because of an RSPCA request that this occur. Paul was arrested while preparing to meet war veterans with his local MP; Annette was arrested at work. The RSPCA were waiting at the police station to interview them but it was not a police case.
“There is no proper complaints procedure for RSPCA employees. They are not your friends, although they often claim to be ‘trying to help’. Do not sign anything they give you without legal advice.
“Kennels, catteries and farms which are not affiliated to the RSPCA or its Freedom Food scheme are at ‘high risk’. If you are breeding or dealing in animals as a hobby or for a living then you are at risk - especially if the RSPCA is running a political campaign in the area. If you breed pets for sale, or run a pet shop, then you will almost certainly know what it is like to receive an ‘unannounced visit’ from the RSPCA. I have represented a number of pet shop owners in litigation involving the RSPCA - most notably Simon Gilbert in three cases. Simon Gilbert is one of the most decent people that I have met. What the media did to him was disgraceful. They put the heading ‘Little Pet Shop of Horrors’ and a picture of Simon and his shop on the front page of the local newspaper. Simon had to move his family to Ireland on police advice in order to protect them from the consequent animal rights activities. He was acquitted of everything three times. Judge Andrew Collender QC was rightly very concerned about the way that the prosecution had been handled.
“The Pet Shops Act 1951 sets out the desirability of, and regime for, properly run and licensed pet shops. We established that the RSPCA had been running a political campaign to change the law for some time. In a letter to all licensing authorities, which was disclosed in Simon’s case, the RSPCA explained that it was against pet shops and invited licensors to tighten up on the very high BVA standards. Making it hard for an otherwise profitable trade to operate lawfully generates more cash for unlawful and unethical operators.
“Sue Haslam, the top veterinary expert on welfare, described conditions in Simon’s shop as, ‘better than in most veterinary surgeries.’ Simon sadly gave up his shop after the third prosecution. That was a victory for no one - other than unethical puppy farmers.
“What should someone do when the RSPCA arrive uninvited? A classic question - as you might imagine, I am asked it a lot. There is, sadly, now no definitive answer to the ‘unannounced visit’. Although the RSPCA is a private organisation, the police and other agencies may well be present these days. If it’s a big raid, the press may be there too. Books have been written about what to do in this type of situation. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 gives the police and other agencies - but not the RSPCA, which is a private charity - additional powers of entry.
“The most important thing is not to panic. Don’t be intimidated, don’t do anything stupid and don’t be drawn into any conversation. All of these could be misunderstood and written up later in a way that might make you look guilty. Do not under any circumstances agree to an ‘interview’ at the scene without a specialist animal welfare lawyer present. Do not sign or agree to anything, do not allow the RSPCA to take any animals away unless it is lawfully seized by someone with the power to do this (e.g. a policeman).
The GOS says: By the way, during the interview quoted, Jonathan Rich mentions a court case called “RSPCA v.Child C”. We can't find any information on the internet about this case. Are the RSPCA prosecuting children now? Or is this something to do with the little girl taken for adoption by social services following what was described as an “attack” on her home by the RSPCA and police?
If anyone can shed any light on RSPCA v.Child C, please let us know.
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
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