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Judge slams Council’s pet taxi court action

A HIGH Court judge has condemned as ‘disgraceful’ a local council's decision to pursue a 72-year-old man to the High Court over the pet ambulance service he provided for other elderly people in his town.

Lord Justice Thomas said the case against Derrick Spooner over a wrongly suspected breach of licensing laws should never have been taken to court.

For seven years community-minded Mr Spooner, of Bewley Road, Angmering, West Sussex had ferried pets between their owners' homes and local vets in the back of his estate car for a small fee.

But despite the fact that he donated all the proceeds to charity, Arun District Council tried to prosecute him, claiming he was operating a private-hire vehicle without a licence.

Council officials argued he needed a licence because the pets' owners occasionally accompanied them and was thus technically running a taxi service.

Worthing Magistrates Court threw out the council’s case in July last year. But the council decided to challenge the magistrates' decision at the High Court, running up a total legal bill estimated at £10,000.

Delivering his judgment last week, Lord Justice Thomas described the council's actions as a ‘quite extraordinary way to spend public money’.

The ruling leaves council tax payers to foot the legal bill for their authority's decision to prosecute in what the court heard was a case of ‘pure petty bureaucracy’.

Lord Justice Thomas said: ‘Here is your authority prosecuting a 72-year-old man who was helping other elderly people take their pets to the vet. It should never have been brought in the first place, and to pursue it against a 72-year-old man in this court is disgraceful.’

Mr Spooner was not in court to hear the verdict as he said he was too busy helping animals. A local newspaper caught up with him and told him the news as he ferried a ginger cat named Tinker to a vet's surgery in Brighton.

Mr Spooner said: ‘I'm well chuffed to say the least. I feel on top of the world because, to be honest, this has gutted the council.

‘I've had sleepless nights about this for two-and-a-half years so I'll be celebrating tonight. The council were foolish for trying it. They've wasted my money, your money, everybody's money and they've got only themselves to blame.’

Mr Spooner adapted his Peugeot 406 to include a cage to hold the animals after retiring in 1999. The vehicle is registered as an ambulance with the DVLA and is comprehensively insured.

He ran into trouble with the local authority after distributing leaflets advertising the service, charging £6 a time to transport pets to and from local vets.

The charge was made to cover the costs of running the car, with an excess of around 20 per cent to 25 per cent that he donated in charity boxes at the last surgery he visited each day. But despite this, officials at the council decided to prosecute the elderly animal lover.

A council spokesman tried to excuse what is generally regarded as its small-minded tenacity in pursuing the case to the High Court, as being necessary to clarify matters and thus help other local authorities saying, ‘This application to the High Court came out of a need for the interpretation of the statute.

The High Court has now given that interpretation which gives clarification to this council and all other local authorities.’