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Tim Bonner: RSPCA's prosecution habit dies hard

For well over a decade the Alliance has been calling for the RSPCA to stop acting as a criminal prosecutor, not least because of the damage this has done to its own reputation. A story this week about a failed RSPCA prosecution of a Lincolnshire farmer has underlined why it was right to finally accept that its role as a prosecutor was incompatible with its animal welfare and campaigning functions, and why it needs to close down its prosecution operation as soon as possible.
When the Alliance originally called for the RSPCA to stop prosecuting over a decade ago we were a voice in the wilderness. The RSPCA was the second largest criminal prosecutor in the country and whilst every other charity and private body had stopped prosecuting as a first resort after the creation of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in the 1980s, the RSPCA was taking more and more people to court. We argued that when successive governments had concluded that the investigation of criminal cases (mainly by the police) needed to be separated from prosecution decisions made by the CPS it was wrong that the RSPCA continued to carry out both roles. More than that the RSPCA was also a campaigning organisation and was very much open to the allegation that its prosecution decisions, in particular on issues like hunting, were influenced by its campaigns.
Whether or not the RSPCA was always a fair and effective prosecutor (and that was very much open to debate) it was always going to be open to the allegations that it was deciding to prosecute people not because of the evidence or public interest, but because it did not like the activities that they were involved in.
The private prosecution in Lincolnshire concluded in 2020 when a farmer was acquitted of animal cruelty charges, but it resurfaced last week when he was awarded £30,000 from the police who the court ruled had wrongly arrested him at the behest of the RSPCA. The judge said that the case raised concerns over the charity’s role as a prosecutor and that it had “become involved in matters that could have been left to the appropriate bodies”. This is exactly the point we have made over many years and which over time gained support from commentators, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Charity Commission. Slowly, but inexorably the RSPCA was dragged towards an announcement in 2021 that it would halt private prosecutions to prevent “reputational damage”.
Two years later the RSPCA is still prosecuting, whilst its Prosecution Oversight Panel says it is preparing the ‘transition’ of its prosecution operation to the CPS. In reality that transition is much more about the parting of the Society’s long relationship with the criminal courts rather than the practicalities of the CPS prosecuting animal welfare cases, which it already has a statutory duty to consider. For its own benefit the RSPCA needs to accept that relationship is over and walk away from further damaging court cases as soon as possible.

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