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CPS considers appeal over huntsman’s acquittal

THE CROWN Prosecution Service is appealing to the High Court over the acquittal of a man convicted of hunting illegally with dogs.

Tony Wright won his appeal in November 2007 on a point of law, and lawyers for the Government are now asking senior judges to clarify where the burden of proof should lie in cases where people are accused of illegal hunting. A hearing is expected within eight weeks. Until the High Court has taken a view, all other prosecutions of alleged illegal hunting have been postponed.
The progress of the CPS appeal is being followed closely by David Collins, Assistant Chief Constable for North Yorkshire, who is the rural affairs spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers. He is reviewing how the Hunting Act is working and its impact on police forces and is likely to draft instructions to officers on how best to enforce the legislation.

Mr Wright, who was the first huntsman in the country to be convicted of breaching the Act, won his appeal on the basis that he reasonably believed his hunting to be exempt from the ban. He insisted that he was using two dogs to flush out foxes from cover so that they could be shot.
Judge Cottle, sitting with two magistrates at Exeter Crown Court, decided at the end of November that Mr Wright genuinely wished to comply with the terms of the hunting legislation. But the judge raised questions about the law.

He said: ‘This case has led us to the conclusion that the relevant law is far from simple to interpret or apply.’ The League Against Cruel Sports, which originally brought a private prosecution against Mr Wright, insists that the burden of proof in hunting prosecutions is on the defendant to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that his hunting was exempt or that he reasonably believed it to be exempt.

Mike Hobday, spokesman for the league, said that this ‘reverse burden of proof’ was made clear by Alun Michael, former Rural Affairs Minister, during debates on the hunting ban in the House of Commons. Such reversal of the burden of proof has a precedent in law in the form of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, although this legislation is still widely criticised.

However, the Countryside Alliance argues that the onus is on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty of breaking the law under the terms of the Hunting Act. ‘We believe that basic common law should prevail in this legislation as any other – that a person is innocent until proven guilty.’

On Boxing Day, Mr Wright was out hunting again, with 50 riders and 400 followers on foot. He said: ‘The courts threw out my conviction and accepted we had not been hunting illegally. We are looking forward now and hopefully it won’t be too long before all the confusion and stupidity of the Hunting Act is removed.’ So far not one rider from a registered hunt has been found guilty of breaching the Hunting Act.