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Last Updated: Friday, 6 August, 2004, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Animal rights tactics pose legal dilemma

By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Mouse, RDS/Wellcome Trust photo
Some campaigners believe a mouse is as valuable as a human life
The government's piecemeal approach to tackling animal rights extremism has failed to win many friends.

The sceptics believe that the impact of its latest measures may be presentational rather than practical.

After all, the range of existing powers to deal with the threat is impressively wide.

There is the 1986 Public Order Act, the 1988 Malicious Communications Act, the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, the 2000 Terrorism Act, and the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act.

And there are sundry other laws which can be used to deal with many of the offences the activists commit. Yet, apparently, this is not enough. Why?


Over the years, animal rights activists - and the best estimates suggest they number 2,000 to 3,000 - have proved highly adaptable.

When a number of key leaders were jailed for a campaign of car and letter bombs in the 1980s, the focus switched to intimidation and harassment.

The early targets were laboratory animal breeders and suppliers. Then, it was the turn of the directors and employees of companies like Huntingdon Life Sciences.

Next came secondary and tertiary targets, such as shareholders and customers and even their friends and families.

As the Home Office points out, the extremists appear to be well-briefed on forensic issues, which hampers the police in their search for evidence.

animal protesters
Huntingdon Life Sciences has been the focus of activists' protests
For example, protesters commonly gather in numbers of 19 or fewer so that the police will not be able to impose conditions on them under Section 14 of the 1986 Public Order Act.

They have also been able to frustrate police attempts to prevent protests at private homes by exploiting a loophole in legislation which was drafted only three years ago.

Nevertheless, this year alone, 21 people have been convicted of a range of offences, including aggravated trespass, harassment, common assault, assault on police and criminal damage.

What concerns us is that, in an effort to sound tough, the government will draft open-ended new offences
Barry Hugill, Liberty
Other cases have yet to come to trial. The human rights group Liberty says that if there are flaws, it is more to do with enforcement than the legislation itself.

Its spokesman, Barry Hugill, said: "Our lawyers have scrutinised existing powers and they believe they are sufficient.

"What concerns us is that, in an effort to sound tough, the government will draft open-ended new offences which can be used against other forms of protest."

'Need to act'

Going further than tidying up existing laws may prove difficult.

The government has considered whether to make it an offence to cause economic damage to the suppliers of firms or research groups engaged in the legitimate and licensed use of animals.

Jean-Paul Garnier, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline
The head of GlaxoSmithKline has said investors are being driven away
But finding a watertight legal definition may prove beyond Home Office draftsmen.

And there doesn't appear to be the stomach amongst MPs to support one unified piece of legislation to tackle the criminal acts of animal rights extremists.

It is not hard, though, to see why ministers feel they need to act.

The withdrawal by the construction company Montpellier from the contract to build a new animal research laboratory in Oxford has highlighted the successful intimidation by extremists of shareholders.

According to reports filed by the 80 companies represented by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, threats to company directors have doubled in the last 12 months and attacks and criminal damage have almost trebled.

But it seems likely that more success will flow from a sharpening up of police intelligence and operations, through the newly created National Extremism Tactical Co-ordinating Unit, than any amount of tinkering with the law.

Animal extremists face crackdown
30 Jul 04 |  Politics
Challenge to animal lab decision
26 Jul 04 |  Cambridgeshire

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