Police Scotland explain failure of vicarious liability in Kildrummy case

waneLast month we blogged about the failure of the Crown Office to initiate a vicarious liability prosecution in the Kildrummy case (see here).

A quick re-cap: in December 2014, Kildrummy Estate gamekeeper George Mutch was convicted of a series of wildlife crime offences that took place on Kildrummy Estate in 2012, including the trapping of a goshawk which he then beat to death with a stick (see here). In January 2015, Mutch was sentenced to four months in prison – the first gamekeeper in the UK to receive a custodial sentence for raptor persecution crimes (see here).

In September 2015, the possibility for a vicarious liability prosecution against Mutch’s employer became impossible as the case had become legally time-barred (i.e. three years had elapsed since the commission of his crimes). We wanted to find out why a vicarious liability prosecution had not been brought in this case so we asked the Crown Office for an explanation. They responded by saying that as nobody had been reported to them for consideration, they couldn’t take forward a prosecution. We speculated (here) about the reasons why nobody had been reported, and thought that it probably had something to do with the fact that Kildrummy Estate is registered as an off-shore company (in Jersey) and thus identification of the actual owner was well hidden; this situation had been expertly uncovered by Andy Wightman’s research earlier this year – see here. However, to find out if this really was the reason why nobody had been reported to the Crown Office, we really needed to hear from Police Scotland, so last month we asked them why they hadn’t reported anyone from Kildrummy Estate to the Crown Office for consideration of a vicarious liability prosecution.

Police Scotland has now responded with a cryptic masterpiece, but if you look closely at their carefully-worded reply it is actually quite revealing:

Police Scotland is committed to tackling wildlife crime whilst recognising that these investigations can often be challenging and prolonged. In 2013, a report about George Mutch was submitted to the Wildlife and Environmental Crime Unit (WECU) at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) alleging the unlawful taking and killing of birds of prey at Kildrummy Estate, Aberdeenshire in 2012. Following a criminal prosecution Mr Mutch was convicted and sentenced to 4 months imprisonment in January 2015.

In parallel with the investigation surrounding the activities of George Mutch, enquiries were made to establish whether any further charges could be brought in terms of Vicarious Liability legislation (Section 18A of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981). However, this legislation does require an offence to have been committed and therefore charges can only be formally libelled once a conviction has been confirmed. Significant international investigations were undertaken by Police Scotland but after consultation with COPFS it was established that due to insufficient evidence the additional charge of Vicarious Liability could not be libelled.

The experience of this case has, however, identified opportunities for refining future Vicarious Liability investigations, a matter currently being explored with COPFS. Please be assured that Police Scotland will continue to ensure that robust and modern investigative tactics are utilised to bring those committing wildlife crime to justice. Police Scotland’s wildlife crime commitment is additionally reflected in our membership of PAW (Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime) Scotland.

I hope the above information addresses the issue raised by you in your correspondence.

Yours sincerely,
Sean Scott, Detective Chief Superintendent”.
For the purposes of our interest, the first paragraph can be ignored. Where things start to get interesting is in paragraph two. Pay close attention to the wording:
Significant international investigations were undertaken……..it was established that due to insufficient evidence the additional charge of Vicarious Liability could not be libelled“.
International investigations” can only relate to an enquiry about either the land owner, or Mutch’s employer, or who owned the shooting rights; in other words, the individual who could be liable for a potential vicarious liability prosecution. “Insufficient evidence” implies that Police Scotland knew who was responsible for managing Mutch, but just couldn’t prove it. Why? Because the details are hidden in an off-shore holding.
It is apparent then, in the Kildrummy case, that justice has been defeated because the details of land ownership (or at least the hierarchical management structure from Mutch upwards) are concealed. This has big implications for any future vicarious liability prosecutions on estates where the land is registered as an off-shore company (a convenient ploy to escape a potential criminal prosecution) and we’re pretty sure Andy Wightman will have something to say about this in terms of his work on the Land Reform Bill currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament. (Update: Andy Wightman has blogged abut this latest development – see here).
The first line of paragraph three, (“The experience of this case has, however, identified opportunities for refining future Vicarious Liability investigations….“) is interesting and we’ll watch to see what this ‘refinement’ might entail.
As an aside, we were interested to read that Police Scotland thinks that vicarious liability charges “can only be formally libelled once a conviction has been confirmed“. That’s not actually what the legislation says. The legislation allows that the person who committed the primary offence need not be prosecuted in order for a prosecution to be brought against the person in management or control (see here). We’re a bit bemused by Police Scotland’s interpretation of this in their above statement, but, as we say, it’s a bit of a side issue in this case because even if Mutch hadn’t been convicted but an attempt was still made to undertake a vicarious liability prosecution, presumably Police Scotland would still have faced the same issue of being unable to identify the person in management or control because these details are squirreled away in an office in Jersey, apparently beyond the reach of Police Scotland.
So, even though vicarious liability has failed in the Kildrummy case, we feel it’s important to acknowledge that in this case, as far as we currently understand what went on, the failure is through no fault of Police Scotland or the Crown Office. This failure is, though, an indication that Vicarious Liability is not the panacea the Scottish Government would like us to believe it is for putting an end to raptor persecution crimes. Since vicarious liability was introduced as an option on 1st January 2012, there has still only been one single successful prosecution. In almost four years, that’s not a good return rate by anyone’s standards.

11 thoughts on “Police Scotland explain failure of vicarious liability in Kildrummy case”

  1. The words “Police Scotland” and “failure” seem to go together nowadays when it comes to serious wildlife crimes

  2. Vicarious liability remains a key part of the battle to protect wildlife. Ironically, Police Scotland’s inability to identify the liable individual will – if well publicised – shine much needed light on the freedom foreign wealth funds and individuals have to break British law with impunity. Something every tabloid would shout about.

  3. “However, this legislation does require an offence to have been committed and therefore charges can only be formally libelled once a conviction has been confirmed”

    I’ve reported cases many times where the vicarious liabilitywas libelled at the same time as the primary offence.

  4. Of course, if this crime involved drugs, anyone with a remote connection to the gang leaders, would be hauled in for questioning, and many charged (and probably convicted) under joint enterprise/common purpose laws.

    Why should it be any different for wealthy landowners?

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