The RSPCA and the Countryside Alliance have clashed bitterly over the animal welfare charity’s policy of pursuing prosecutions for illegal hunting.
An investigation published by The Times reportedly found only four out of five RSPCA prosecutions for alleged illegal hunting were successful. As a result taxpayers had to foot legal bills for those that failed totalling at least £70,000, because defence costs in private prosecutions can be claimed against the public purse.
The findings led to the Alliance, which is fighting to overturn the hunt ban, to allege that the RSPCA was guilty of an abuse of the courts for mounting politically motivated legal cases. Tim Bonner, the Alliance’s director of campaigns said: "People will simply not understand why the taxpayer should foot the bill for failed RSPCA prosecutions, especially when they seem to be politically motivated.
“We believe the Government needs to look urgently at the law to ensure private prosecutors think twice before bringing spurious prosecutions.”
Specialist country sports lawyer Jamie Foster of Taunton-based Clarke Willmot represented one of the few defendants who pleaded guilty to illegal hunting. Huntsman David Parker of the Seavington in Somerset admitted blowing his hunting horn, encouraging the hounds to pursue a fox, which later escaped.
He was fined £500 with £500 costs despite the RSPCA requesting their full costs of close to £5,000 at the end of the case last September.
Mr Foster said of the case that it would have been more appropriate for the RSPCA to issue a caution, given no animal was harmed. “This was another example of a campaigning charity prioritising its own political interests in criminal proceedings, which in my view is inexcusable,” he said.
The RSPCA hit back yesterday with a strongly-worded denial that it was acting in any way improperly in taking hunts to court. Ray Goodfellow, the charity’s chief legal officer, said: “The figures cited by the Countryside Alliance are disingenuous. It is a gross distortion to compare a percentage calculated on the number of summonses with a percentage calculated on the number of individual defendants successfully convicted.
“Obviously I reject the claim that our prosecutions are politically motivated. The RSPCA follows the principles laid down by the CPS Code for Crown Prosecutors. The Countryside Alliance should engage with the independent review of RSPCA prosecutions if they have concerns about the manner in which the RSPCA brings private prosecutions.”
Last year, in response to concerns, the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, wrote to the RSPCA suggesting it appoint a barrister to conduct a review of its policies. Last month Stephen Wooler, a former chief inspector of HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, was appointed to carry out the review. The RSPCA was criticised for spending more than £320,000 in 2012 pursuing a successful prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt, where David Cameron was a member.
According to The Times unsuccessful prosecutions pursued by the RSPCA included one against an 18-year-old student who had to sit her A levels under threat of a court conviction and two against a man, aged 79, who was under threat of action for a year before the case was dropped.
It is further alleged that some of those hunts targeted had Conservative connections while Gavin Grant, the RSPCA's chief executive is a Lib Dem supporter. The RSPCA deny Mr Grant played any part in the prosecution decisions.
The RSPCA said:"The Countryside Alliance is an increasingly desperate organisation and its campaign to bring back bloodsports is clearly failing.
"The vast majority of people in this country (80% of both rural and urban inhabitants) have made it clear in a new poll that they are opposed to the return of the cruel and vicious practice of hunting foxes with dogs.
"The Countryside Alliance's response to this is to resort to a new low of smear campaigns and inaccuracies."
Last week Barney White-Spunner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance described the RSPCA as "sinister and nasty."
He said: "It's a sad story. It's got plenty of money but its membership has plummeted. A once great British institution has been turned from an animal welfare organisation into one concerned with animal rights. That's sad.
"Where does their moral authority come from," he asked in an interview with the Daily Telegraph. "They have no statutory authority yet when their inspectors turn up in uniform, its as a private organisation. There's something sinister and nasty about it. Why should they, just because they are rich, tell us how to behave towards animals?"