Sunday, August 11, 2013

Enquiry into the RSPCA? - Part 8: prosecution?

Unlike Australian RSPCA inspectors who are sworn as special constables and have powers equivalent to police officers, the RSPCA in England and Wales makes use only of legal powers which are available to any citizen.

There is little controversy over RSPCA prosecutions of acts of sadistic cruelty but much more disagreement over cases of neglect and the enforcement of the Hunting Act. 

In neglect cases the main cause for concern is that many people reported to the RSPCA for suspected cruelty are not deliberately cruel but have a mental abnormality which means they are unable to provide proper care for their animals.

The vast majority of neglect reports are dealt with by the RSPCA providing advice and support, including practical help such as neutering vouchers and veterinary treatment. In 2012 (most recent figures available) the RSPCA provided welfare improvement advice in 78,090 cases but only sent forward 2,093 cases for possible prosecution (2.6% of the 80,183 cases where any action was felt needed). 

The main point of prosecutions from an animal welfare point of view is firstly to obtain a court's instructions that the animals in question are relinquished for rehoming and secondly to ensure that people who are likely to re-offend are disqualified from keeping animals. This second function means that animals can be removed immediately if they are acquired by someone who is the subject of a disqualification order.

Currently the RSPCA forwards details of successful welfare prosecutions for inclusion in the Police National Computer records and has a service agreement with PNC to receive details of past convictions (which might be by other agencies such as Trading Standards) when court cases are commenced. This does not at any stage involve direct RSPCA access to the PNC.

What an enquiry might comment

Animal welfare is an emotive subject and there are legitimate concerns about high profile cases where individuals with mental disabilities are exposed to public hatred. Unless there were to be a policy of not prosecuting such people at all, this concern would not be addressed by transferring prosecutions from the RSPCA to the police as cases would remain of great interest to the media. 

Allowing animals to be removed without any legal scrutiny if an owner has a disability, is potentially much more discriminatory than the current situation.  As the major concern is the publicity surrounding neglect cases rather than the prosecutions themselves, a better solution might be to tackle this by introducing protection against naming of disabled defendants similar to the protection given to child defendants.

It might be helpful if the RSPCA were to record statistics showing the proportion of disabled people in the advice/support and prosecution categories respectively.

It has been estimated that around 90% of the prison population have some kind of mental impairment and that around 40% of those with a learning difficulty are unable to have their children living with them. It would be unreasonable to expect the RSPCA to reverse these trends in the case of dependent animals. However it would be a cause for concern if the RSPCA was less successful than the police in resolving neglect cases without the need for prosecution.

Once an RSPCA investigation has reached a point at which the police need to be involved there may be a feeling that the situation is now on a "conveyor-belt" to prosecution and can no longer be resolved by negotiation. It might be helpful to have discussions between the local police and inspectorate team to agree working practices which would leave the individual inspectors more lee-way to give animal owners another chance to rectify the situation without feeling they were wasting police time.

Preventing collation of criminal records  in the PNC would make it more difficult for the police to identify breaches of animal keeper disqualifications when visiting properties for non-RSPCA related reasons.

If, at some future date, the RSPCA were to announce that its prosecution role had become untenable due to organised campaigns by certain sectors, it is difficult to predict the likely outcome. However one possibility is that the police and CPS might feel under pressure to bring cases which the RSPCA would not in fact have prosecuted, rather than risk creating an impression that some people are above the law.

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