RSPCA plans to stop taking animal abusers to court privately

For nearly two centuries, the RSPCA has pursued private prosecutions against people it suspects of cruelty to animals. Now, under pressure from MPs, it has said it plans to end that practice and turn over its files to the Crown Prosecution Service instead.

According to plans released on Thursday as part of a new 10-year plan, the charity is seeking an agreement to cede control of the prosecution process, though it would carry on investigating cases in England and Wales.

“We are proud of our history bringing animal abusers to justice and for many years we have been the right people to do this vital work. However, the world has changed and we have to change with it,” its chief executive, Chris Sherwood, said.

One of the principal motivations, the RSPCA said, was the increasing complexity of the cases it is seeing, with many now involving organised criminal enterprises.

“We are seeing trends with cases with hardened criminal gangs involved in puppy farming, dog fighting, cock fighting or hare coursing, sometimes with millions of pounds changing hands,” Sherwood said.

“We are an animal charity and our concern is welfare but these complex cases can involve serious offences such as fraud or weapons.”

He added: “We are pleased that this year could see one of our hard-fought campaigns to raise the maximum penalty for animal abuse from six months to five years become reality, but this also means a big change in the way cases are prosecuted and sentenced.

“Some of these cases will now move to crown courts and those carrying out the worst abuse could face lengthy jail terms. This places a huge responsibility on a charity’s shoulders. We believe this responsibility should sit with the Crown Prosecution Service, which is a statutory public body with regulatory oversight.”

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In recent years, the RSPCA has come under pressure to hand over files to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) from MPs who feel it has been too eager to take people to court itself.

But an RSPCA spokesperson played down any suggestion that, without a change in the law, the move was likely to result in fewer prosecutions. She explained that the RSPCA planned to focus more keenly on its initial investigations and that the only change would be the authority carrying out the prosecution.

Since the charity already applies the same standards as the CPS when deciding whether or not to bring a prosecution, she said, it was likely that charging decisions would broadly mirror their own prosecution rates.

She added that the plans announced on Thursday were conditional on the CPS and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) agreeing to take up the mantle, while the RSPCA also reserved the right to bring private prosecutions if it felt the authorities were failing to act.

The charity is also seeking the granting of statutory powers that would give its improvement notices legal weight, similar to those given to its Scottish sister, which routinely hands cases to the public prosecutor.

The animal welfare minister, Zac Goldsmith, said: “The RSPCA has undertaken outstanding work in this area for well over a century and we will continue to engage with them on these proposals over the coming months.” The CPS has not responded to a request for comment.


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