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Magistrates’ rebellion over hunt ban cases

MAGISTRATES IN rural communities are threatening a rebellion against the Government’s anti-hunting Bill if it becomes law. In the week that the House of Lords is set to give the Bill its Second Reading, news of the legal uprising added to the Government’s headache over its already heavily amended Bill. Thousands of hunting supporters have promised a campaign of passive civil resistance if a total hunting ban is imposed.

District judges who preside over important cases in magistrates’ courts are being lined up because the first cases heard under an outright hunting ban are expected to become "show trials". Their involvement may increase because many lay magistrates are threatening to resign rather than enforce the introduction of a hunting ban in England and Wales.

It was revealed that a number of magistrates have already stepped down. Others have served notices to quit and some are prepared to break the law and await formal dismissal by the Lord Chancellor.

The precise number is not known but informal soundings by magistrates’ court clerks suggest that at least 10 per cent of lay magistrates are ready to quit the bench if the Government pushes through a ban on the sport. In rural areas such as Cumbria, Yorkshire, Devon and Cornwall, the figure could be as high as 25 per cent.

The Justices’ Clerks’ Society, which represents the clerks that act as legal advisers to local justices of the peace, is proposing that the network of 105 district judges should take the heat out of the situation.

Impact

Chris Jackson, 56, a magistrate, huntsman and farmer from Rugeley, Staffordshire, says that he would take part in illegal hunting but has no intention of quitting the bench. He said: "I believe it will have more impact if the Lord Chancellor has to sack me."

The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for an outright ban by 386 votes to 175, rejecting any notion of a ‘Middle Way’ option where hunting could continue in certain areas under license. The following day, the House of Lords voted against an outright ban on Foxhunting in their own debate on the issue and delivered a huge vote in favour of the so-called ‘Middle Way’, the peers backed the option of allowing fox hunting under regulation by 366 votes to 59, a majority of 307.

If the Lords ultimately reject the outright ban, backbench MPs are certain to call upon Ministers to use the Parliament Act to force a total ban on to the statute book in the next session of Parliament. However, Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael has pointedly refused to say whether such an option will be used, indicating the Government’s reluctance to ‘pick a fight’ with the rural community at a time when other issues such as the Hutton Inquiry are showing the Government in an increasingly bad light. Even if a total ban were enforced, the legislation might not reach the statute books until 2005 – perilously close to the next General Election.

The Bill returned to the Lords last Tuesday, as OUR DOGS went to press.