The latest friends of the prime minister to have found themselves in the criminal dock are members of the Heythrop Hunt. This is Cameron’s local hunt in Oxfordshire, with which he rode half a dozen times before the Hunting Act in February 2005 made hunting with dogs unlawful.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) brought a prosecution, costing almost £330,000, after receiving evidence that the Heythrop Hunt had intentionally hunted – and killed – foxes with dogs during the 2011/12 season.
A district judge sitting at Oxford Magistrates Court this week ordered the hunt to pay a £4,000 fine and £15,000 costs after it admitted the offence – and after the court was shown video footage of the dogs tearing a fox apart and heard the huntsmen encouraging them with cries of ‘tally ho’ and ‘forrard’.
Two former members of the hunt were also fined. Recently retired hunt master Richard Sumner, 68, was ordered to pay a fine of £1,800 and costs of £2,500, while former huntsman Julian Barnsfield was fined £1,000 and £2,000 costs.
The hunt and both men had pleaded guilty to four charges of intentionally hunting a fox with dogs on land in the Cotswolds, but their guilty pleas were not accompanied by any show of contrition.
Barnsfield, speaking after the hearing, proceeded to deny that he or the hunt had done anything wrong. He said: ‘What I am doing at the moment is perfectly legal, The Heythrop Hunt is still hunting within the law. Nothing has changed.’
He even went on to declare himself ‘staggered’ that a charity could use so much of its supporters’ money ‘on this political thing’. The judge in the case also said he found it ‘quite staggering’ that the charity had spent £326,980.23 on bringing the prosecution.
Responding to the disquiet around the charity’s legal bill, RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant said: ‘The costs incurred by the RSPCA were due to the need for hours of footage supplied by monitors to be carefully assessed by our legal team.
‘The RSPCA's legal team was appointed with the intention of giving parity with the defence who ordinarily engage a QC, as they did in this case, so that the prosecution is thorough and fair.
‘You cannot put a price on justice and as the animals can’t bring this case themselves – particularly when they have been torn to pieces – so we have to do it for them.
‘Some have also questioned why we took the case, rather than the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS deals with police cases, while the RSPCA are the experts in dealing with animal welfare prosecutions. The only exception to this tends to be if the police investigate a case relating to an animal, then they may pass it on to the CPS.’
Grant added: ‘I have a message for those involved in hunting that if you break the law the RSPCA and others are watching and we will bring you to justice.’
So there you have it. The RSPCA says that you can’t put a price on justice, but is that true? Is it a responsible use of money donated by the public or should it have been spent on rescuing cuddly kittens? How many such prosecutions can the charity afford? Will it in time have to let hunts get away with flouting the law because it has run out of funds?
And what about the CPS’s role – or lack of role – in the whole affair? Since when has it become acceptable for charities to bring law breakers to account? If the law has been broken, surely the CPS should act, shouldn’t it? Isn’t that its job?
The Hunting Act may be bad law. But it is the law, and will remain so until parliament decides to repeal or amend it. In the meantime, as this case demonstrated, even Cameron’s chums can’t pick and choose which laws they want to obey and which they want to flout.
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