THE RSPCA found itself in the firing line two weeks ago when it was the subject of two radio investigations into ‘inappropriate’ prosecutions carried out by the charity in the recent past.
The Julian Worricker Show on BBC Radio 5 considered two such cases in the programme broadcast on Sunday April 9th. Reporter Matthew Chapman first detailed the case of police constable Jonathan Bell who found himself on the receiving end of an RSPCA prosecution for allegedly being cruel to a cat.
The story began in April 2004 when PC Bell and a colleague were called out one evening to deal with a neighbourhood dispute involving damage to cars in a street in Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire. Whilst the matter was being dealt with, a member of the public approached PC Bell and told him that they had found a cat that had been run over and was in great distress. PC Bell found the cat, which had extensive injuries to its back legs, and was "almost squashed flat". It was clear that the animal was in great pain and distress. PC Bell radioed into his control room to ask for advice on what to do, although the control room were unable to be of help, as they had no policy in dealing with injured cats.
Mark Judson of the Police Federation took up the story, as PC Bell had declined to appear on the programme. Judson explained that PC Bell had been advised by his control room that under current laws, injured cats were not covered for veterinary call-outs in the same way that dogs were and that the RSPCA could not be called out late at night. Faced with this impossible situation PC Bell consulted with a colleague – a dog handler – who advised him that the best thing to do would be to put the cat out of its misery. PC Bell duly borrowed a spade from one of the residents and hit the cat over the head with it. It took three or four blows to dispatch the cat.
Soon afterwards, the RSPCA heard about the incident and began a prosecution against PC Bell for cruelty. The case was set for a two-day hearing at Stoke On Trent Magistrates Court in June 2005. PC Bell and four other police officers that were called as witnesses were in attendance, along with other witnesses, barristers and solicitors but the RSPCA’s own witness failed to turn up, so the case was adjourned at great expense. The case was eventually heard three months later before a District Judge who heard all the evidence and acquitted PC Bell saying that he had been placed in an ‘extremely difficult situation’ on the night in question.
The RSPCA, not being satisfied with this verdict, appealed against the decision, taking the case to the High Court in London. It was only in March 2006 that the High Court heard the appeal and upheld the District Judge’s decision to acquit PC Bell.
Judson told reporter Chapman: ‘PC Bell feels he has undergone trial by media. His photograph was published in the local newspaper the Stoke Sentinel who branded him ‘Cat Killer Cop’… He feels he has been to hell and back… he was not overtly cruel to the cat and feels he has been harassed by the local newspaper and the RSPCA who have treated him like a terrier with a bone.’
Chapman told listeners that PC Bell’s defence was paid for by legal aid – as was his right – and that according to a legal source, the eight court hearings would have cost in the region of £50,000.
In the studio was David Bowles, the RSPCA’s Head of External Affairs who did his best to defend the Society’s actions in PC Bell’s case. Bowles said: ‘The RSPCA do not harass people…. Before we decide to prosecute a case we use two tests: 1) Is it in the public interest and 2) Can we win it?
The RSPCA has a 96 to 97% success rate in prosecutions it takes on, but we take this very seriously, adhering to PACE [Police and Criminal Evidence guidelines]…’
Bowles went on to state that the post mortem report on the cat showed that it had ‘suffered by being hit’ with the spade and that on the balance of evidence, it was decided to go ahead with the prosecution. He added that even though the case had been dismissed by the High Court it was ‘worthwhile’ because the police in Stoke-on-Trent had revised their procedures in such cases and in future they would ‘know what to do’ with an injured cat.
Julian Worriker suggested that the case could not have helped the relationship between the police and the RSPCA, who often have to work together on cruelty cases. Bowles replied: ‘It is important that we treat any person the same. We looked at what could have been done and we decided to prosecute on that basis.’
Putting the case against the RSPCA in the studio was Chris Newman of the Federation of Companion Animal Societies (FOCAS) who accused the RSPCA of being too fixated on prosecutions for cruelty rather than education. ‘The RSPCA claim a high success rate in prosecutions,’ said Newman. ‘But there is no independent audit of these figures, so we have to accept their word for them. Does the RSPCA use the same criteria for prosecutions as the Crown Prosecution Service? I have studied 30 cases where prosecutions have been brought and in every one there was no element of ‘education’, no prior visit to the person in question – there was a raid, animals were seized and there was a prosecution.’
Newman went on to claim that the RSPCA were far too political and that this, combined with their role in prosecuting cases, was at odds with their charitable status.
The next case study concerned that of a couple who owned a pet shop in South Yorkshire identified only as John and Sarah. Chapman explained that one day in February 2004 the RSPCA visited their shop and said that they had ‘received complaints’ about the condition of a number of the reptiles on sale. This came as a surprise to the couple as they had only recently had a council inspection and their premises and livestock had been passed as fit.
The RSPCA duly took away nine reptiles which they refused to return to the couple as, according to their vet, they were ‘too ill to be moved’. However, an independent vet sent to examine the animals by John and Sarah gave the animals a clean bill of health. However, over the course of the next few months, the animals died whilst in the RSPCA’s care and only one was eventually returned to them.
It was revealed that the RSPCA’s expert advisor in this case was Peter Heathcote of the charity the Reptile Trust. It also came out later that Heathcote’s charity was being paid to house the seized reptiles and that Heathcote’s wife was the veterinary surgeon who stated that the animals were ill and conducted autopsies on any animal that had died.
Sarah revealed that the RSPCA had later approached her and John and offered to drop the charges against them in return for giving up the part of their pet shop licence that allowed them to keep reptiles. ‘We think they’ve got a hidden agenda,’ she said. ‘Thy don’t want people to keep reptiles as pets.’
The RSPCA’s solicitor, when oppressed on this point during the legal proceedings said that he could find ‘no record of such an offer being made.’
The case eventually came to court and over four days the prosecution presented its case, although proceedings were allegedly farcical in parts as many of the photographs produced in court did not match the descriptions of the animals.
The judge decided not to hear evidence from the defence, saying he had heard enough and acquitted John and Sarah of all charges and directed the RSPCA to return the one living reptile to the couple.
But there was a further twist when, in seeking compensation for the illegal seizure of the animals, John and Sarah approached South Yorkshire police in this regards, as one of their officers had been present at the seizure. However, South Yorkshire police issued a statement saying that they could not pay compensation, as the RSPCA had only requested police attendance for a possible breach of the peace, not to seize animals. So the seizure was, in fact, an illegal procedure.
As might be expected, David Bowles robustly defended the RSPCA’s decision and refuted Newman’s assertion that they had taken on the prosecution as ‘publicity for their campaign against people keeping exotic animals.’
‘I am in charge of RSPCA campaigns and I have no power to influence prosecutions,’ said Bowles. ‘We are not against people keeping reptiles… we have no hidden agenda… We want people to be aware of an animal’s needs and not to make impulse purchases.’ Turning to the case itself, Bowles added: ‘Although the case was dismissed, no costs were awarded against the RSPCA. We don’t always win, but we think we were right in this case.’
He went on to add that the Charity Commission have never felt that the RSPCA’s role as prosecutors is a conflict of interest with its status as a charity. Asked by Chapman whether someone in the Society surely must oversee the Society’s whole operations, Bowles replied, ‘Jackie Ballard is our Director General but even she cannot mandate a prosecution.’
The discussion continued with Newman suggesting that the RSPCA follow the procedure set by the Scottish SPCA, who refer all cases for prosecution to the Procurator Fiscal’s office, so surely the RSPCA could refer cases to the CPS?
Bowles replied that the RSPCA followed all guidelines from the CPS and Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and if their cases were at fault, the DPP would stop them.
When pressed by Newman as to why the RSPCA as ‘so fearful of passing prosecutions to the police and CPS’, Bowles said: ‘We are saving the police and CPS time and money… MPs on the Standing Committee considering the Animal Welfare Bill said that the RSPCA should continue to take prosecutions once the Act is enacted, as we have the requisite experience.’
The topic was revisited on BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show the following Tuesday (April 11th), with the PC Bell case being highlighted. David Bowles once again appeared for the RSPCA and continued to quote statistics about the Society’s 1,000 careful convictions last year out of 100,000 complaints investigated and its 96 to 97% success rate.
This time solicitor Nigel Weller who specialises in defence for cruelty cases put the distaff view, saying: ‘Of course any charity that supports animal welfare should be encouraged… But my experience is not that the RSPCA profess to help and educate people. In every case I have dealt with it’s a summary execution and seizure.’
Weller also pointed out that the RSPCA officers’ uniforms cause people anxiety, saying that they are not only dressed like police officers but that they also begin all interviews by saying ‘You’re not under arrest’.
Several callers to the Jeremy Vine show were furious at what they saw as the persecution of PC Bell and the waste of money that they had donated to the charity.
David Bowles reiterated that he was not in charge of deciding on which cases were prosecuted, which could only leave listeners with one question: This being the case, why did the RSPCA not put up a spokesman who did deal with prosecutions to put the Society’s side?
* What do YOU think of the RSPCA’s continued role as prosecutors in animal cruelty cases? Did you listen to the radio programmes yourself? (Both are available for ‘playback’ online at BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio 2’s websites).
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