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.