RSPCA called to account
This week we report through two important articles on the work of the RSPCA in recent years. Despite the commitment and good work throughout the country by the local branches (which are not funded by the national charity) the national charity focuses on public relations and prosecutions to the extent that are several specialist lawyers in the UK whose main case load is defending (usually successfully) those individuals and small businesses taken to court by the RSPCA.
There are occasional high profile cases where there has been good cause for concern and action but we have too much evidence of delay and procrastination when animal abuse is reported and that ‘easy option’ prosecutions are targeted by RSPCA inspectors.
One of those specialist lawyers to is Jonathan Rich, a barrister and animal welfare specialist who was interviewed recently by Robert Killick.
Life is of paramount importance!
OVER THE past twenty years Jonathan (‘Joe’) Rich has defended well over 200 people - mainly farmers, huntsmen, kennel owners and dog breeders. In 2007, he famously and successfully defended pet shop owner Simon Gilbert three times. Joe recently acted for Paul Shotton, Labour’s former deputy Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent, and his wife Annette during their successful appeal. He is recognised as a leading consumer specialist by all the main legal directories.
RK: How do you think other people see you?
jr: As with most people, it probably depends who you ask. I’d like people to think that I try my best for clients, and with a smile - no matter how successfully they have been demonised by the time of the trial. You might be surprised to learn that I have a good professional relationship with several of the RSPCA’s lawyers. One of them even asked me for a reference recently, which I was very happy to provide - and wholeheartedly recommend them. On one occasion, after my client had been given a discharge, the inspector-in-charge shook me warmly by the hand, told me that everything she’s been told about me was not true and thanked me for sorting out all the problems in the case. After another, one of the RSPCA inspectors gave me a badge!
RK:Do you have a role model?
JR: My father - who I think I’ve actually come to respect even more since his death than I did before. He was a gentle soul from a Quaker family. In 1939 he volunteered for the Royal Engineers - my grandmother insisted he must not fight. Frontline Stevedore, a BBC documentary, featured him and his men being dive-bombed by Stukas as they unloaded Churchill tanks for the battle of El Alamein. My grandmother was very proud. I’d like to think we still live in the liberal democracy he fought for, but sometimes I’m not so sure.
RK:What’s the best advice you’ve ever given a client?
JR: ‘No one wins a fight, they just lose it to different extents’ - I’ve said this several times to clients as an aid to settlement, especially in mediations. It almost always works - you can sometimes even see the scales falling from their eyes. Settlement is a medium in which people can often do more for each other than a court could ever order, but the right settlement always needs to be fought for and won.
rk: What has been the most rewarding experience of your life so far?
JR: A bit of a clichE9, but unquestionably the two Sundays on which my two young daughters were born. You probably mean my professional life, though. If so, then it’s the third time that Simon Gilbert was acquitted - although Paul Shotton’s case was a real achievement. We had to deal with a lot of threats in both cases. Also, watching the BNP leaving the public gallery during the appeal hearing in Shotton, when they realised the RSPCA’s case was lost, gave all of us a great sense of satisfaction, though. The case was a terrible battle.
RK:You’re a Tory Councillor - did that make representing Paul Shotton interesting?
jr: I’ve done a lot of things for the Tories over the years, and I’m still a Conservative Councillor. It certainly didn’t get in the way with Paul. He did his homework and asked for me, which was nice. The fact that I’m a Tory was certainly a talking point, though. Paul is a man for whom, incidentally, I have an immense amount of respect. The BNP really put him through the mill and it was a feature of the case that might have been even bigger than it was. Paul is a man who deserves better than that.
RK:In the Shotton case, the RSPCA’s sensational allegation that his Labrador, Baron was emaciated and dehydrated and had been left outside to die obviously got the story into the papers. When did you realise that something was wrong and that the allegations were untrue?
JR:It’s not really my job to ‘realise’ or ‘know’ things, as such. Paul was always, and rightly it turned out, insistent that the allegations were untrue. It was my job to represent him in accordance with his instructions. The biggest obstacle was clear evidence from an experienced RSPCA vet who claimed he’d weighed Baron at 19kg. The Shottons’ own vet had weighed Baron at 30kg a few months before, so Baron seemed to have lost a lot of weight. We had to allege that the RSPCA vet was mistaken, but he gave all sorts of detail about how he’d personally weighed Baron standing on his own scales. Nigel Weller, my Solicitor, pressed the RSPCA for disclosure of the blood tests referred to in the RSPCA vet’s evidence. The RSPCA’s vet claimed it was the Shottons’ vets who lost them.
We eventually got the bloods from the RSPCA just before the first trial. They showed there was no dehydration or emaciation. On appeal, Nigel Weller had Dr Udo Hetzel, the top veterinary pathologist at Liverpool University, do a full post mortem. Incredibly embarrassing things for the RSPCA came to light - Baron’s carcass weighed 29.6kg and he’d not been fed for a day at the RSPCA vet’s surgery. Rather than drop the case, the RSPCA threats of applications for wasted costs were made if Dr Hetzel was called. You just can’t imagine the CPS doing that.
We did call Dr Hetzel. By the time he gave his evidence, the RSPCA’s vet had seen the way things were going and confessed that he had not weighed Baron at all. He claimed that he’d got the erroneous figure of 19kg from his veterinary nurse - we had to get all this from the vet, not from the RSPCA, though.
rk: That’s an amazing, but terrifying, story. Do you think the RSPCA should be allowed to prosecute as they see fit or should there be some control by the CPS as suggested by MPs like Roger Gale and Frank Field?
JR:There should. These cases are just two of many examples. The RSPCA spends the best part of A310,000,000 a year on its private prosecutions. This is money that is being diverted from what the people think that the RSPCA do. I don’t think the RSPCA will ever stop prosecuting people and hand their files to the CPS, like the Scottish SPCA has to, and does very successfully. It’s time to urgently amend the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and stop the RSPCA from prosecuting. That act stopped the police from prosecuting and made them to refer all their files to the CPS. Animal welfare charities should focus on animal welfare, not on prosecutions.
The disgust which I have heard expressed for the RSPCA as a result of what their prosecutions department is doing at the moment is terrifying. It can’t be good for the long-term health of the charity, or the value of its ‘Freedom Food’ brand.
rk: Disabled charities and pensioners’ groups are obviously up in arms about the RSPCA at the moment. Have members of the public really got anything to worry about?
JR: If you do keep animals, then common decency dictates that you must ensure they are properly looked after. If you do, then you’ll probably be okay, unless you are in a ‘high risk’ group. Putting these to one side, most problems with the RSPCA happen when people are too old, too sick or too inexperienced to look after animals properly. Disability Now did a huge piece last year on the impact of the RSPCA on pensioners and the disabled. Rachel Hurst and Anna Bird, who know a lot about the subject, contributed and said some very worrying things. RSPCA v Child C case was a terrifying prosecution, and I agree with the remarks the child’s barrister, Nick Tucker, made afterwards to the BBC’s File on 4.
The case that I did for Roberta Mitchell is a good example perhaps. She was raided by the RSPCA and the police while she was spending her time at her dying husband’s bedside. She was under terrible strain and I could never see the CPS prosecuting her. Pat Seager’s case was a disgrace. MPs like Frank Field and Roger Gale have done some very powerful points to the BBC and elsewhere. Many others have voiced similar concerns too.
RK:How many people have got to call for the RSPCA to stop prosecuting before something is done?
JR:Something quite important happened recently - Chris Laurence, Chief Veterinary Officer at the Dog’s Trust, joined the chorus calling for an independent inquiry. Chris used to do the same job at the RSPCA, and I think he knows a thing or two. The RSPCA is just too embedded in New Labour, though. As everyone knows New Labour took A31.1m off the Political Animal Lobby (PAL) to abolish hunting. PAL was chaired by Richard Ryder, one of the fathers of the animal rights movement. Ryder has been an RSPCA ruling Councillor for decades and he was also RSPCA Chairman. Although there is no direct evidence that this money came from the RSPCA there does not appear to be any other obvious source.
I do not think the present Government has the political will to protect vulnerable people from private prosecutors. The RSPCA is the darling of the Labour Animal Welfare Society (LAWS) and they wouldn’t permit such a change either. Dianne Hayter, the Chair of Labour’s National Executive Committee is elected onto the NEC by Socialist societies like LAWS. The NEC is responsible for policy formulation and I just can’t see her permitting such a policy change. There is no shortage of people on all sides of the spectrum calling for it to happen. It would be a very popular move indeed - Long Bingham recently observed that private prosecutions are unknown in Scotland.
RK:Do you think that everyone who works for the RSPCA is an extremist?
JR :Absolutely not! The RSPCA’s problems stem from rigid dogma dictated from on high. It might be controversial for me to say this but I have always thought that the RSPCA’s foot-soldiers are generally pretty reasonable and decent people. Most of those that work at RSPCA Headquarters are pretty sensible too. When inspectors make mistakes, they are often young people thrown in at the deep end, trying to do a difficult job well. Many of them do not believe in animal rights.
The RSPCA certainly has had some extreme policies and its share of extremists. Its declaration in favour of animal rights was highly controversial, but it has had to formally drop that because it’s a political, not a charitable objective. Every organisation has its share of oddballs. The RSPCA is perhaps a natural place to work for people who want animals’ rights.
RK: You believe passionately in ‘animal welfare’, but speak and campaign against ‘animal rights’. What’s the difference?
JR: They are complete opposites. Animal welfare is a charitable objective - and what I, and the overwhelming majority of people, believe in. It’s about ensuring the wellbeing of animals, including those used to satisfy human needs. From companionship to sport, from food and clothing to medical research, animals must not experience unnecessary suffering and must have their basic needs - food, shelter and health - fulfilled.
Animal rights philosophy, on the other hand, rejects all animal use, no matter how humane. It’s a political objective, which the RSPCA recently had to formally drop for fear of losing its charitable status. Richard Ryder’s classic dictum, ‘all animals that feel pain deserve human rights,’ is a contradiction, but you can understand what he was trying to say. He invented the concept of ‘speciesism’ - the animal equivalent of racism. Animals are not property, so goes the theory, and must not be used for food, clothing, research or as pets.
RK:If the RSPCA believes in rights for animals, what do you think of reports that it kills so many healthy ones?
JR: The RSPCA is making it very hard for decent people to take rescue dogs from them at the moment. It also has a ‘euthanasia’ policy, based on the teachings of Richard Ryder and Peter Singer, who are leading lights within both the animal rights movement and the RSPCA. Ryder is a former RSPCA Chairman and remains a ruling Councillor. Peter Singer is Vice-President. The policy means that people who do not ‘euthanse’ animals that are in distress are putting themselves in danger of an RSPCA private prosecution, unless their vet supervises very closely. It also means that animals that stay in kennels too long get euthanased, as they become impossible to adopt after a time. I’ve never really understood how euthanasia was compatible with animal rights, but animal rights activists generally advocate euthanasia for all animals - humans included. For me, the sanctity of life is paramount.
RK: What about people with old dogs and cats?
JR: The Shotton case for me illustrates the fact that people with old dogs and cats are in a ‘high risk’ group. Having an animal which is old, or which has a long-standing illness, can be an expensive process; old animals can get ill very quickly. In a civilised society, there should be no need for hyper-vigilance, though. It is owners, not RSPCA Inspectors, who are just ordinary members of the public too, who should - subject to veterinary advice - decide whether animals live or die.
RK:You refer to RSPCA inspectors as ‘ordinary members of the public’. Do you think it is misleading for them to call themselves inspectors?
JR:Yes, I think it is quite misleading - especially when they wear police-style uniforms. There was a very interesting article in the Sunday Times about this issue a year or so ago. The RSPCA is, contrary to appearances, a private organisation. Some people are terrified of the RSPCA, and there is absolutely no need to be. No RSPCA employee, so far as I am aware, has any special powers or is even an inspector for the purposes of the Animal Welfare Act. Indeed, if they are, I want to know about it! The title ‘RSPCA Inspector’ is just a job title, given to an RSPCA employee working for the inspectorate department when they finish their twelve weeks of training.
The society gives some of its more senior employees even more impressive sounding titles: ‘Chief Superintendent’ and the like. However, they are all just job titles; it’s not like the police - RSPCA inspectors are not even constables. To think otherwise is a natural mistake to make. One problem which is regularly encountered is a police officer who thinks that the RSPCA is some sort of agency, or that its employees somehow have more powers than ordinary members of the public. If a police officer tells you, or behaves as if the RSPCA is an agency or has special powers, then that policeman needs to be corrected.
Paul and Annette Shotton were both arrested by the police at the request of the RSPCA. In fact, I’ve had several clients - perhaps the best known of them was Craig Sargent - who were arrested purely because of an RSPCA request that this occur. Paul was arrested while preparing to meet war veterans with his local MP; Annette was arrested at work. The RSPCA were waiting at the police station to interview them but it was not a police case.
RK:How should people behave towards employees of the RSPCA, then?
JR: If you treat all people with respect, including RSPCA personnel, then you won’t go far wrong. I tell people to treat them like a Police Community Support Officer. Bear in mind, though that PCSOs have some powers and that there is no proper complaints procedure for RSPCA employees. The RSPCA have to earn your respect and trust, too. They are not your friends, although they often claim to be ‘trying to help’. Do not sign anything they give you without legal advice. If you feel that you must sign something, then for goodness sake, read it first!
RK:You speak about people with old animals being in a ‘high risk’ group - are there any ‘high risk’ groups?
JR: Yes. In my view, kennels, catteries and farms which are not affiliated to the RSPCA or its Freedom Food scheme are at ‘high risk’. This is not an exhaustive list. If you are breeding or dealing in animals as a hobby or for a living then you are at risk - especially if the RSPCA is running a political campaign in the area. If you breed pets for sale, or run a pet shop, then you will almost certainly know what it is like to receive an ‘unannounced visit’ from the RSPCA.
RK:Talking about pet shops, did your experiences with Simon Gilbert focus your views?
JR:I have represented a number of pet shop owners in litigation involving the RSPCA - perhaps, as you say, most notably Simon Gilbert in three cases. Pet shops owners are generally responsible and decent people. Simon Gilbert is one of the most decent people that I have met. What the media did to him was disgraceful. They put the heading ‘Little Pet Shop of Horrors’ and a picture of Simon and his shop on the front page of the local newspaper. Simon had to move his family to Ireland on police advice in order to protect them from the consequent animal rights activities. He was acquitted of everything three times. Judge Andrew Collender QC was rightly very concerned about the way that the prosecution had been handled.
The Pet Shops Act 1951 sets out the desirability of, and regime for, properly run and licensed pet shops. We established that the RSPCA had been running a political campaign to change the law for some time. In a letter to all licensing authorities, which was disclosed in Simon’s case, the RSPCA explained that it was against pet shops and invited licensors to tighten up on the very high BVA standards. Making it hard for an otherwise profitable trade to operate lawfully generates more cash for unlawful and unethical operators.
As with drugs, people are willing to spend lots of money on the ‘right’ dog. However, if pet shop owners operate like Simon Gilbert did - keeping pets in superb conditions and ensuring the integrity of his suppliers - then I think that the battle against puppy farmers will be won. Sue Haslam, the top veterinary expert on welfare, described conditions in Simon’s shop as, ‘better than in most veterinary surgeries.’ Simon sadly gave up his shop after the third prosecution. That was a victory for no one - other than unethical puppy farmers.
RK:What should someone do when the RSPCA arrive uninvited?
JR :This is a classic question - as you might imagine, I am asked it a lot. There is, sadly, now no definitive answer to the ‘unannounced visit’. Although the RSPCA is a private organisation, the police and other agencies may well be present these days. If it’s a big raid, the press may be there too. Books have been written about what to do in this type of situation. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 gives the police and other agencies - but not the RSPCA, which is a private charity - additional powers of entry.
The most important thing is not to panic. Don’t be intimidated, don’t do anything stupid and don’t be drawn into any conversation. All of these could be misunderstood and written up later in a way that might make you look guilty. Do not under any circumstances agree to an ‘interview’ at the scene without a specialist animal welfare lawyer present. Do not sign or agree to anything, do not allow the RSPCA to take any animals away unless it is lawfully seized by someone with the power to do this (e.g. a policeman).
RK:What if it’s just the RSPCA - no police, DEFRA or trading standards?
JR: A little bit of preparation helps. If you’ve got an animal, then you will have identified a vet already, but it is worth getting the mobile number of a specialist animal lawyer, or failing that the Self Help Group*, just in case. The RSPCA can’t enter any property by themselves so, when they get there, I think that the best general response is to ask them why they are there, listen to the response and then simply ask them to wait outside your property for a moment. If they do, then speak to your lawyers, and your vets - follow the advice you are given by them.
Your vet will want to speak to the RSPCA to try to find out why they are there. Your lawyers will probably want to speak to the RSPCA on the telephone. It is likely, unless there is a genuinely urgent reason for the ‘unannounced visit’, that the lawyers will suggest that they should leave. Your vet will want to make sure that the reasons why the RSPCA say that they have attended is investigated quickly. This will protect you, should matters go further. Always remember that the RSPCA is a private organisation and, as such, has no powers at all. Its employees are ordinary members of the public, working for a private charity. Be blind to the police-style uniforms and manner.
Get on the phone to as many sensible friends of yours as you can and ask them to come over. If you have a video camera, then turn it on immediately and keep taping until the RSPCA have left. Start an organised event diary, taking note of names and numbers. From that point on, take careful notes of times and dates of visit and telephone calls. You must try to note what is said, especially if there is a danger of it not being properly taped. Photograph and video the animals concerned.
If your vet does not attend the scene immediately, you get the animals to your vet for a clean bill of health. The fact that you have a vet should prevent any animal from being seized. District Judge Browning was very unhappy indeed when the RSPCA seized Martin and Gina Griffin’s horse while their vet was present and protesting. I doubt whether that mistake will be made again for a bit.
RK:Is being an animal welfare lawyer as badly-paid as everyone says?
JR: The pay is appalling for the defence and it’s really tough and demanding work. The daily rate for appearing in court on Legal Aid is just A3175 a day, even in the Crown Court. Out of that we have to pay all our expenses - travel, hotels, books, copying, clerks and chambers. Only four or five specialist welfare barristers still do any defence work now. However, if you are still in chambers and prosecuting for the CPS, it’s not much better, though.
This is not the case for prosecutors. I understand from one of my Solicitors that in a recent case the prosecuting barrister is on A35,500 a day. I did a case myself recently where a junior barrister was on A33,500 a day. That was twenty times as much as I was on.
The Australian experience shows that this may not last, however. The sort of money that the RSPCA in Australia pays its barristers and vets was exposed in Ruth Downey’s case last month. The fees there were mind-numbing - and the expenses paid included the charter of a private plane! The court was, rightly, furious. MPs over there are on the case.
* http://the-shg.org/selfhelp.htm is the web site of the Self Help Group devoted to defending those targeted by the RSPCA and providing advice. They inform the public aware of their rights, and can provide names of solicitors who are experts in animal law, and of vets and other expert witnesses who are prepared to appear against the RSPCA.
Next week : one family’s fight against the RSPCA
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