Adverts: 0161 709 4576 - Editorial: 0161 709 4571
Mail Order: 0161 709 4578 - Subs: 0161 709 4575 - Webteam: 0161 709 4567
Gatheral sisters ban is halved on appeal
Kennel Club appeal hearing on the Rule A43 penalty imposed in 2000

The Gatheral Sisters, Mary (66) and Caroline (68) visited the Kennel Club last Thursday, for the first time since they were banned for 10 years on June 6th 2000 under KC rule A43. The ban followed their convictions at Teesdale and Wear Valley Magistrates’ Court on March 23rd 2000, on 83 counts of causing unnecessary suffering to animals contrary to The Protection of Animals Act 1911. The sisters felt the extent of the penalties imposed (which effectively excluded them from all KC activities, including registrations till 2010) were excessive.

Carolyn, the older of the two sisters, and the only one to be a full KC member, was subsequently expelled from the club.

Last week the Gatherals had the opportunity to put their case for mitigation when they appeared before a four member Ad Hoc Sub-Committee convened especially to hear the appeal.

Kennel Club Rule A43 broadly relates to persons who have been convicted in the Courts of an offence relating or appertaining to Cruelty or Dishonesty concerning dogs. Rule A43 hearings and their subsequent appeals do not concern themselves as to the rights or wrongs of any such conviction, but are just to hear mitigation from the plaintiff in relation to any such conviction and subsequent KC penalties.

Until fairly recently, the procedure for such hearings was to hear the case "in camera" with the plaintiff only being able to submit written mitigation and indeed the original KC A43 hearing which had banned the Gatherals, was held under the old regulations. Following the introduction of the European Convention for Human Rights in the UK in 2001 and upon legal advice from the KC's advisors, procedures have been brought more into line with Rule A42 hearings, where the plaintiff is able to attend in person, bring witnesses and members of the canine press are also invited to attend.

The background to the Gatheral case has been well documented, but briefly relates to a prosecution brought by the RSPCA, following a visit by their inspectors to the Gatherals’ home, Sockburn Hall, a huge Grade II listed house in Neasham, Co Durham. One of the RSPCA inspectors who visited the premises, described in court the conditions he found many of the dogs in as "the most inhumane I have ever seen animals kept in." It was alleged that floors and stairs were caked with excreta, the only fresh water available was from a toilet and that the only light for some of the dogs came from a single bulb and a television that had been left switched on.

The RSPCA video was later transmitted on prime time TV and not surprisingly feelings over the case ran high. Amazingly, at the time the Gatheral sisters claimed to have received "over 3,000 letters of support" and offered criticism of the way the RSPCA handled the confiscation of the animals, which included the one time Sheltie Dog CC record holder. The case was originally due to be heard on February 21st 2000, but the sisters did not attend this hearing and the case was adjourned until March 23rd.

This adjournment was very convenient for Caroline Gatheral (at the time, still a KC member and the daughter of a former General Committee member), as it enabled her to fulfil a judging appointment for King Charles Spaniels at Crufts on March 9th that year. The KC had come in for much criticism for allowing Caroline Gatheral to fulfil the appointment and the "Popular Press" picked up the story and had a field day with much adverse publicity appearing in the Nationals. When they finally did appear in court, both sisters pleaded guilty to all 83 counts of causing unnecessary suffering to dogs in their care and they were banned for two years from owning animals by the magistrates.

Difficulty

It is thought that as a direct result of the Gatheral case the KC were later to establish a confidential counselling service for those who find themselves in difficulty with their dogs through age, infirmity or changes in circumstances.

The sisters remained silent through most of the hearing and sat stern faced in their chairs which were facing the four members of the sub-committee. Their case was presented to the KC by their legal representative, solicitor Robert Bajaj. The hearing was due to start at 10:30am but due to problems with the London Underground, caused by the one day firemen’s strike, Mr Bajaj was late in arriving and the hearing eventually got underway at 11:25am. Mr Bajaj had presented the sub-committee with a bundle of documents, which included both factual and legal submissions. He stated that both Mary and Caroline had enjoyed many years of experience in judging, breeding and exhibiting and Caroline had become a member of the ladies’ branch of the KC back in 1962.

Additionally it was stated that the sisters had "devoted countless hours to dog rescue". Mr Bajaj then referred the meeting to letters of support within the bundle of documents, relating to "the esteem in which they are held prior to these very unfortunate incidents". One letter was from The Grange Veterinary Hospital and the final paragraph read; "We personally cannot imagine three more caring, compassionate and knowledgeable people, particularly where their animals are concerned". The meeting was also referred to a letter of support from Professor Peter Bedford on Royal Veterinary Hospital note paper.

The Gatherals’ solicitor then stated the as the sisters were convicted for failing to provide the dogs with proper and necessary care and attention, which he submitted, were failures to deal with animal husbandry. He submitted that there was no suggestion that there had been any deliberate cruelty on the part of the sisters. Mr Bajaj then asked the sub-committee to consider "The very unique set of circumstances which caused the intervention of the RSPCA." In 1999 a third Gatheral sister Susan Graham (nee Gatheral), had become very ill after a brain haemorrhage, immediately following the death of her husband from cancer.

This, stated Mr Bajaj, caused a "family crisis" and put pressure on the other two sisters and that that time they found that they were unable to cope in terms of animal husbandry." "That is something that they regret and that they know that they should have sought help at that stage and it is certainly a lesson that they feel they have learned and is not something that they are prepared to let happen again".

As a result of the convictions, Mr Bajaj continued, the sisters have had to endure not only the tarnishing of their very good name built up over very many years but they had also lost the animals they had in their care. Additionally one of the dogs, referred to as "Helmsman", a multi CC winner, was castrated by the RSPCA bringing to an end a breeding programme spanning 40 years.

On top of this they had been suspended from participating in canine related activities by the KC for a period of 10 years. Mr Bajaj then stated that he wished to put the court penalties in perspective. The court could, he stated, have banned his clients from owning animals for life, instead of only two years. Additional the RSPCA had applied for costs in the sum of £50,000. It was then stated that after hearing "extensive debate" the court then imposed only a two year ban and no costs were awarded in favour of the RSPCA.

Mr Bajaj then submitted to the hearing that the sentence given by the court was to "assist" the sisters, to provide a cooling off period of two years when the Gatherals could put their domestic house in order and also deal with the conditions at the kennels.

Mr Bajaj then pointed out to the sub-committee that if the KC "ban" was allowed to remain at its present level, then it would not expire until Mary is 74 and Caroline 76. "Whilst these are not quite life sentences, my clients feel that they still had several years in front of them which they could be contributing to the world of dogs". he continued: "The punishment imposed by the Kennel Club is five times greater that that which the magistrates imposed."

"The magistrates court, armed with all the facts, were only prepared to prevent my clients from having the custody of dogs for two years".

The Gatherals’ solicitor then referred the sub-committee to several photographs taken in August 2002 and these showed the present conditions of the wooden kennels and the runs at Sockburn Hall. "I think you will find that the conditions are more than suitable for my clients to keep dogs." "My clients certainly feel that they have learned from the experience and whilst they were lacking in asking for help initially, that is not something they would do now. They would ask for help now, it is a very severe lesson that has been learned for all concerned."

Mr Bajaj then moved on to the future intentions of the sisters. He stated that his clients now intend to keep a very reduced number of dogs, Mary now has four dogs and Caroline three. "If the committee was to review their previous decision of the 6th June 2000, to suspend and disqualify, what they propose to do is embark on their canine activities on a very reduced basis."

For example Mr Bajaj stated that the sisters no longer planned to carry out dog rescue as this would have a very significant impact on their time and ability to look after any other dogs. They would also do all they could to ensure that no future problems with animal husbandry could occur. In summing up, Mr Bajaj stated that "The world of dogs for Mary and Caroline has been their life for each for over 50 years. They feel that they have contributed an immense amount of their experience to the world of dogs and they would like the opportunity to put back something more to continue helping with advice etc."

"They feel that they have already paid a very terrible price for what was a unique set of circumstances in 1999, which they bitterly regret and one which they will never let happen again."

Similarities

Mr Bajaj finally stated that his clients felt that any review, decision or punishment should be entirely proportionate to any they have received from the courts. They were keen to "move on with their lives and really get back to the world of dogs."

Mr Bajaj then referred the sub-committee to his legal submissions on behalf of his clients. At this point, the sub-committee could ask questions and Mr Alan Rountree questioned the fact that in his legal submissions, Mr Bajaj had relied heavily on alleged similarities between the Gatheral case and the Phyllis Colgan (Newfoundland) case.

(NOTE: It may be recalled that in November 2001 the High Court in London had overturned a 5 year ban placed on Mrs Colgan by the KC concerning a conviction following the death of 10 Newfoundlands from heat exhaustion. The Judge ordered the KC to rescind the 5 year ban, originally imposed in April 1999 and replace it with a three-year suspension for registrations of puppies and two for showing and other activities.)

Mr Rountree of the Sub-Committee disputed the alleged similarities in the legal submissions on a number of legal points, for example, the Colgan case had concerned a single unfortunate incident which had occurred over a very short period of time but that the Gatheral case had concerned a matter which had occurred over a far longer time scale.

Additionally Colgan had submitted a "livelihood" argument and this was not an issue with the Gatheral sisters

Mrs Terry of the Sub-Committee then enquired as to the present health of Susan Graham, the third Gatheral sister. At this point one of the Gatheral sisters spoke for the first time during the hearing, stating that Susan was now much better and was responding to care but still was having difficulties with certain matters. The sisters also confirmed that because of the additional care they gave to their poorly sister that they were not both fully based at Sockburn Hall.

Mrs Terry then questioned why the sisters had bred three litters (which were all removed by the RSPCA) at a time when things had been so difficult for them personally. Caroline Gatheral then spoke for the first time confirming that there were indeed three litters born at that time, "but one always hopes that a miracle will happen, that she (Susan) will get better." It was revealed that Susan had spent seven weeks on a life support machine and a further seven months in rehabilitation. During this time the sisters had travelled on a 104 mile round trip to visit their critically ill sister. "I would like to express how sorry I am about what occurred and I hope that the Committee will think kindly of us." stated Caroline.

With that the hearing went into adjournment for about an hour to consider the matter. On reconvening the Chairman, Mrs Irene Terry read out the following statement:

"The committee has taken into consideration the extensive experience in canine care and maintenance which should have guided the Misses Gatheral not to commit the offences to which they pleaded guilty. Further the committee have given due weight to the opinion of the general Committee in imposing the original penalty and have concluded that in the light of the intentions and having also considered the impact on this case of intervening legal precedent, it would be proportionate and appropriate to reduce the period of disqualification to five years."

There followed a long silence. The two Gatheral sisters appeared motionless for several seconds, their expressions remained as they had during the morning, sternly staring forward.

It was almost as if they could not believe that their period of suspension had not been reduced still further. Then, the Gatheral sisters and their legal advisor retired from the Boardroom where the KC hold their hearings, to the room allocated to them for their use during the hearing by The Kennel Club.

It appeared to the writer that the sisters were clearly disappointed with the outcome of the appeal, but there remain no further channels to pursue the matter with The Kennel Club. The only remaining options for the sisters would be to either accept the reduced five year ban and ride it out, or mount a legal challenge through the courts. Time will tell which option they will choose.

One thing is certain and that is that this was a very important case for the Kennel Club: a case which had originally generated unprecedented public and media interest, not least because of the horrific video recordings made by the RSPCA on their visit and its subsequent prime time transmission on television and the criticism that the KC had received when Caroline Gatheral had completed her Crufts judging appointment whilst charged and awaiting a court appearance.

With the costly Colgan High Court challenge still firmly in their memory, they must have been keen to stave off any possible and expensive legal challenge, but they also had to be seen to be supportive of animal welfare with what ever decision they made. In effect they were caught between a rock and a hard place.

The Ad Hoc Sub-Committee was made up of Mrs Irene Terry as Chairman, Mr Stan Ford, Mr Alan Rountree and Mr Michael Townsend.