THE CONTINUING attempt by pro-hunting campaigners to overturn Parliament’s ban on hunting with dogs failed in the Court of Appeal a week last Wednesday. Although the appeal’s failure was expected, many campaigners had hoped that further grounds of appeal would be allowed. In the event, this looks unlikely.
Three senior judges headed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, rejected the legal argument put forward by the Countryside Alliance’s lawyers that the 1949 Parliament Act, which MPs used to force through the Hunting Act in the face of opposition from the House of Lords late last year was invalid. They refused the Alliance permission to appeal to the House of Lords, although the Alliance’s lawyer said that an application for appeal to the Lords would be made separately.
The judges also refused to grant an injunction which would have delayed the Act from being implemented. The Prime Minister had indicated - via the Attorney General - that the Government supported the injunction - which it was hoped would spare the Government the embarrassment of violent pro-hunting protests in the prelude to the general election.
But Lord Woolf said of the Attorney General: "We don't think it is right he should seek to hide behind the courts in this matter."
Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, for three hunt supporters funded by the Alliance, argued at a hearing on February 8th that Parliament had never correctly voted for the 1949 Act that was therefore unlawful. Any legislation introduced by invoking the Act was therefore equally unlawful, Sir Sydney told Lord Woolf.
But the judges dismissed the Alliance’s appeal against a High Court ruling on January 28th in which Lord Justice Maurice Kay and Mr Justice Collins said it was clear that the 1949 Act was valid and the proposed hunting ban lawful.
The appeal judges ruled that MPs did have the power to amend the 1911 Act, the 1949 Act was therefore valid and dismissed the appeal. They also refused the Alliance permission to appeal to the House of Lords.
Sir Sydney said an urgent application for permission would be made direct to the Law Lords. The appeal judges described the challenge to the Act as "unusual, and in modern times probably unprecedented".
"In this respect, this case is no ordinary public law case and the judgment deals with an issue of considerable constitutional importance," they said in their ruling.
The judges were fully aware that it would suit ministers if the courts decided that the hunting ban could not be enforced in the run-up to an expected general election. However, they were clearly irritated that ministers were apparently asking the courts to save the Government from having to take a politically sensitive decision.
The judges also refused the Attorney General’s request that the Alliance should pay the Government's legal costs in defending the appeal. And in an unexpected blow to the Government, the judges added their view on a wider constitutional issue by saying it would not be lawful for Parliament to abolish the House of Lords without the consent of the Lords themselves.
A spokesman for the Attorney General commented on Thursday last week: "The Hunting Act 2004 will come into force on Friday, February 18th. The Court of Appeal has, as always expected by the Government, upheld the validity of the Act and declined to overturn it. It has also declined to suspend the operation of the Act until the challenge is finally concluded.
"The Attorney General does not, therefore, propose to introduce a blanket policy of non-enforcement of the law. The Attorney will, however, consider with the Director of Public Prosecutions and police what approach to take in relation to such prosecutions."
The spokesman added that if the law lords agreed to hear an appeal by the alliance, "consideration will then be given to what implications that has for any pending prosecutions".
However, the Government would "robustly resist any further challenge to the validity of the Hunting Act".
Meanwhile, the Countryside Alliance is planning another challenge to the Hunting Act via the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the ban deprives people of their livelihoods.
After the Appeal Court ruling, Darren Hughes, spokesman for the Countryside Alliance, said: "It is becoming increasingly clear that there is declining support for a ban on hunting in all areas of the UK.
"The British public have been listening to the arguments and can see that a ban has no animal welfare benefits. The only people not prepared to listen are the bigoted Labour politicians who forced through the Hunting Act.
"This is another clear example of the Government not reflecting the views of the people of this country. The Hunting Act is an unjust, unenforceable and unworkable piece of legislation and will not stand the test of time."