Press Release from Nigel Weller solicitors
YOUNG KENNEL MAID ACQUITTED - RSPCA CRITICISED AGAIN AS YET ANOTHER “CRUELTY” CASE COLLAPSES
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
30th December 2007
A young kennel maid who worked at Castle Farm Kennels & Cattery in Wickham, Hampshire. She, and her employers, were the subject of an RSPCA raid and private prosecution. This sort of scenario is now providing many decent law-abiding people like her with their first taste of criminal proceedings.
After the usual months of distraught worry, she and her employers were cleared of all the allegations against them. Putting aside the usual satellite issues and side-shows which a private prosecution by the RSPCA entails, the charity’s basic allegation against her was that she had failed to provide a dog called “Buster” with “a nutritionally balanced diet”. This was said to be “contrary to Section 1(1)(a) of the Protection of Animals Act 1911” – it was claimed that she was guilty of “cruelty”.
It is fair to say that her recent acquittal – despite the very interesting judgment of the court – has not yet enjoyed the same sensational and wide airing that the RSPCA’s allegations did before and during the trial, when she and her co-accused employers were as innocent as they are now. Prejudicial, untrue and irrelevant headlines like “Dehydrated animals at kennels drank for minutes”, appeared in the national and local press. As usual, material was released to the media by the RSPCA to generate headlines and put pressure on the defence.
The Magistrates acquitted on the basis that the RSPCA had not even satisfied them of the cause of Buster’s alleged “condition”. However, the court was highly critical of the RSPCA’s investigation and its conduct of the matter. In particular, the judgment focussed on the way that she had been interviewed and on subsequent discussions between witnesses organised by the prosecutor. The court allowed defence Solicitor Nigel Weller to make inquiries on these points at the trial - they would otherwise have been kept secret, as no disclosure of them was made by the RSPCA.
Something that RSPCA staff refer to as “the usual case conference” had taken place before trial. This apparently involves, and the present case did involve, assembling the main witnesses of fact – here RSPCA inspector, Janet Edwards, and RSPCA vet Kimberley Evans – and arranging a meeting between them with representatives from the RSPCA’s Solicitors and also trial Counsel. The evidence was discussed in detail at this “case conference”, which was only uncovered by assiduous investigation and cross-examination by the defence with the court’s permission. The small latitude afforded to the defence in this six-day trial is not invariably given in all cases.
The court was particularly unimpressed by what the defence uncovered and rightly expressed the court’s concerns that such conferences “may give the man in the street the impression that something untoward was going on”. He went onto say that the RSPCA should “change their practices in relation to this practice in the future”. It goes without saying that a defendant who “organised” evidence in this way would, at best, face serious similar criticisms.
It is difficult to disagree with the court’s analysis. As every criminal lawyer knows, meetings of witnesses to discuss the case are unlawful. Fair criminal trials take place in court - not in the offices of lawyers before the trial. Witnesses of fact and experts should never be given the opportunity to discuss or rehearse their evidence - let alone do so. If such discussion happens, then it must be disclosed to the defence immediately, but it wasn’t here.
In relation to the interview evidence, the court made serious criticisms of Ms Edwards and her interviewing techniques. For example, she even “failed to explain what offences were being investigated by the RSPCA”. No reference was made to “cruelty” - or even to the statutory provision which defendants in RSPCA cases are usually charged (s.1(1)(a) of PAA 1911). The Chairman went on to say that, in future, this legislation must be explained to the suspects “so that they fully understand and to show that the charges are clear”. The offence of cruelty is serious and allegations of it are newsworthy - as the RSPCA and its supporters, as well as those newspapers that print RSPCA press releases verbatim plainly do realise.
This lady and her employers were, like many “suspects” in RSPCA private prosecutions, interviewed “contemporaneously” at home - which is to say that their interviews are written up by the inspector and not tape-recorded. The court was emphatic that the RSPCA must tell suspects they have a “right to have their own Solicitor present during the course of any interview” and that an interview can be adjourned for this purpose - without implying that an adverse inference will be drawn if they do.
It is, again, hard for a reasonable person to disagree with such a common sense analysis. However, following the case, the RSPCA’s Janet Edwards said:
“I'm bitterly disappointed with the outcome of this trial and for the suffering Buster the dog had to endure. I feel anxious about the magistrate's decision. The RSPCA will be considering an appeal.”
These are interesting words indeed for a witness of fact someone to use, particularly when they have a duty to be objective about the case and investigate it fully and fairly - and make proper disclosure. It remains to be seen whether indeed Ms Edwards’ employers go ahead with “the appeal” which they claim to be considering.
Nigel Weller, the Defence Solicitor, commented:
“This lady’s unfortunate experience with the RSPCA and its private prosecutions department is, unfortunately, far from a unique experience. The court was right –what the RSPCA did in this case might indeed give the man in the street the impression that something untoward was going on.”
Notes to Editors: -
Trio cleared by court in dog cruelty case
For further details contact:
Nigel Weller & Co, Solicitors
15 Market Street
Lewes, East Sussex