Will the RSPCA’s Decision to Step Back from Prosecutions Reduce Cases?

The world is changing and the RSPCA says it must change with it. That means handing responsibility for prosecutions onto the Crown Prosecution Service.

FILE PHOTO: Paddy, a mongrel, is seen in his kennel at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, in London, Britain June 9, 2020. Picture taken June 9, 2020. REUTERS/John Sibley

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LONDON (Within the Law) - Good news for animal cruelty fans as the RSPCA says it plans to stop private cases against them. For the last 200 years, the charity has regularly pursued private prosecutions against people it believes are responsible for animal cruelty. However, they now say they will leave that to the Crown Prosecution Service. 

The decision comes after pressure from MPs. Back in 2016, a Commons Select Committee called on the RSPCA to drop its private prosecutions and leave it to the CPS instead. The current model said the committee, in which the charity investigates and manages prosecutions while also raising funding risks a conflict of interests. 

At the time the RSPCA said it would reject the recommendations. Jeremy Cooper, Chief Executive of the RSPCA said: “We do not agree with the recommendation that the RSPCA should no longer prosecute. We are extremely proud of our near 200 years of experience investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty and our 92 per cent success rate – which is currently a higher percentage than the CPS.”

Their research, they said, was backed by 89% of the British public and that they would be confused about why a “small group of MPs would suggest stopping the RSPCA carrying out a role which we are very good at and which is paid for by public donations rather than out of taxes.”

Four years on they have a different Chief Executive who is singing a different tune.

“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,” said Chris Sherwood, its current chief executive. 

They will continue to investigate but will give in to those MPs who want to see the CPS take the lead. 

So, what’s changed? 

One of the main motivations, according to the RSPCA, is the increasing complexity of the cases they are working on, many of which now involve organised crime. Cases are emerging with criminal gangs getting involved with puppy farming, cockfighting, hare coursing and dogfighting. Millions of pounds often change hands. 

As demand for dogs has skyrocketed during the lockdown, criminal gangs have spotted a gap in the market. They are smuggling dogs from overseas and stealing others. 

Such an increasingly complex environment is becoming tricky for a simple charity to work in. While it will continue to work with police, and law enforcement agencies, they say they will now step back from the prosecutions. 

Sherwood 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.”

Many of these cases will now go to the Crown Court and may carry lengthy jail sentences. This, they say, places a huge responsibility on the charity’s shoulders which they feel would sit better with the Crown Prosecution Service. 

A barrier to prosecution?

The question is: will this new move reduce the number of animal cruelty prosecutions? One of the main reasons why some MPs believed the RSPCA should step back was a perception that they are too keen to pursue prosecutions themselves. 

The RSPCA claims it will not. A spokesperson claimed that the charity will continue its work with investigations. The only change will be the authority which is bringing those prosecutions. The charity, she says, already applies the same standards as the CPS when deciding whether or not to bring a prosecution, so it is likely that prosecution rates will continue at the same level. She added that the plans depended on the CPS and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs agreeing to take up the mantle. It also reserves the right to bring private prosecutions if it feels the CPS is failing to act.

It is also seeking changes which would give its improvement notices legal weight similar to the situation in Scotland where the Scottish RSPCA routinely hands cases over to prosecutors.  

However, there is one important change she is missing. By moving prosecutions to the CPS, the financial burden of bringing these prosecutions will also move onto the shoulders of the taxpayer. 

Years of underfunding have left the CPS facing serious problems. As early as 2013 reports were warning that a lack of resources is hindering its progress. In 2019, the FDA warned that the Justice system would break down and ‘criminals would go unpunished’ without millions of pounds of investment. 

The pandemic has pushed a creaking system up to its limits and beyond. Watchdogs have highlighted ‘grave concerns’ about the impact on justice as the Crown Courts face a backlog of cases stretching to more than half a million. Some people will have to wait until 2022 to get justice. 

Time will tell what impact the RSCPA’s decision will have. However, they do promise to maintain a watching brief. Their spokeswoman said they will reserve the right to bring cases themselves if they feel the CPS is not bringing enough prosecutions. 

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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