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Concerns over 'overzealous' RSPCA

By Paul Burnell
File On 4

The UK's largest animal charity, the RSPCA, is currently looking to recruit more inspectors to implement the provisions of new animal welfare laws.

Dog kept by RSPCA
Is the RSPCA too zealous in its prosecutions?

But while the charity prides itself on freeing animals from cruelty, there are critics who believe pet owners are becoming victims of an allegedly overzealous investigations and prosecutions policy.

According to barrister Nick Tucker if a recent case had succeeded "every child who did not take their sick pet to the vet could have been prosecuted".

He says this was the implication in the case of a 15-year-old girl who found herself in court after following her father's advice not to take her injured pet cat to the vets.

The girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, found her cat had a damaged tail, her father suggested waiting a couple of days to see if the wound healed.

Child charged

The cat was reported to the RSPCA who prosecuted the girl's father, who admitted an offence of neglect only to see his daughter accused later of the similar offence with the RSPCA saying she had a duty of care to the cat.

This case was rejected but the RSPCA took it to the court of appeal, which rejected its case.

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Chief Superintendent Phil Wilson makes no apologies.

"We only went to court for one reason to seek clarification of the law, which we now have.

"The decision in this case is an important precedent," he told BBC File On 4.

But there are people who argue this symbolises an over-zealous approach to prosecutions.

Unlike their Scottish counterparts, the RSPCA in England is responsible for bringing its own, private prosecutions which barrister Jonathan Rich says fail to match the standards of prosecution that the Crown Prosecution Service applies to criminal cases.

He argues that in prioritising the interests of animals it means other people are prosecuted alongside those who genuinely mistreat animals.

Mr Rich said: "It might sound attractive to prioritise the interests of animals but look what it means for a farmer who is looking to retire, whose cattle have not had the right treatment for a day or two - is it really in the interests of the public for him to be prosecuted for cruelty?"

The RSPCA said it only prosecutes in the public interest after taking advice from independent vets and it only prosecutes around half of the cases presented to it.

Alsatian seized

Chief officer of its inspectorate Tim Wass said new animal welfare legislation would help the RSPCA intervene to prevent animal cruelty and this would help lower the number of prosecutions.

Animal lover Annette Nally however, believes she received bad treatment at the hands of the RSPCA.

Ms Nally, who looks after rescue dogs, was caring for an Alsatian called Holly which had an incurable gastric problem restricting its diet. This meant the dog would never gain much weight.

The RSPCA seized the dog in January 2006 claiming she was not treating it dog properly and Ms Nally was prosecuted.

Wrangling over the disclosure of prosecution documents delayed the trial and she was not able to discover her pet's fate.

Ms Nally's defence convinced the court that in the time the RSPCA kept Holly, it had not treated the dog any any more effectively than its owner.

She was cleared but only discovered Holly's fate when after an order from the judge, the RSPCA's lawyers admitted the dog had died in their custody.

"I was absolutely devastated, the whole idea of going through this was to get her back," she told the BBC.

But Mr Wilson defends the decision to prosecute, "There was sufficient evidence to take this case to court. There was a case to answer."

"I accept the reason why she was acquitted - it's the proper function of the court."

Child protection

Another area of concern is the RSPCA's role in child protection investigations.

Tim Wass told the BBC: "We've always had a reporting process where our officers have a genuine concern for the welfare of children as part of their daily work."

He said a number of officers had been trained by the NSPCC and social service departments for cross reporting.

"We're only talking last year, happily, of 21 formal referrals," he added.

Mr Rich said he has clients who have been reported to social services after animal welfare workers inspected their animals.

He added there was no evidence in these cases to suggest the children had been abused.

Draft proposals have been drawn up by the London Safeguarding Children Board and the RSPCA.

These protocols would see the RSPCA cross reporting to children's social care departments households with children where there has been deliberate harm to animals or where animals had been deprived food, water, shelter or access to a vet.

Mr Wass, is adamant that this is not how his staff operate in the field.

"I am not aware of these protocols....that is not the way we want our officers to behave."

He said he would be looking at the concerns raised by File On 4's investigation.

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