Two weeks ago, the public prosecutors in Scotland (Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service) decided to discontinue criminal proceedings against a (now former) gamekeeper who was alleged to have shot a hen harrier on a grouse moor at Cabrach Estate in June 2013 (see here).
No explanation was given for this decision.
Earlier this morning, RSPB Scotland released video footage of the incident and issued a press statement (here). Here is the video in case anyone missed it:
After watching this video, it’s hard to find words to express the disbelief, frustration and fury about that decision to discontinue the prosecution. Social media has erupted in outrage and the Crown Office is seen as a laughing stock. Most reasonable, law-abiding people who don’t have a vested interest in driven grouse shooting would be hard pressed to disagree.
The RSPB Scotland statement said that the Crown Office had indicated they could not use the video as evidence, but no further detail was provided. RSPB Scotland quite rightly pointed out that other cases that have relied upon video footage have been used successfully in Scottish courts (the most high profile one being the conviction of gamekeeper George Mutch in 2014), and the RSPB was bewildered by the inconsistency of the COPFS’ approach in this case.
However, this morning, in response to the release of the video, the Crown Office has finally decided to provide an explanation, as published in a BBC news article:
“In accordance with the Crown’s ongoing duty to keep prosecutions under review and after carrying out a detailed review of all of the relevant material, Crown counsel considered that the inevitable conclusion was that RSPB investigators entered the land in question and embarked upon evidence gathering for the purpose of prosecution.
Discussions have taken place over a number of years between RSPB and COPFS about the admissibility of evidence obtained through the use of covert surveillance.
The Crown has consistently made it clear that strict legal tests must be met before evidence which has been obtained irregularly, such as the evidence in this case, is admissible. We will continue to have further dialogue with RSPB.
In the whole circumstances, Crown counsel concluded that the evidence would not be admissible in court.
In light of that conclusion it was entirely appropriate that proceedings were brought to an end.”
This statement begs several questions:
- Essentially, this statement implies that RSPB Scotland was lying about the deployment of the video camera. RSPB Scotland had clearly explained that the camera was positioned as part of a routine research/monitoring study focusing on the breeding success of a threatened species. There’s a Scottish Government project (Heads up for Hen Harriers) that is deploying cameras at hen harrier nests for exactly this purpose for Christ’s sake! The Crown Office apparently disputes the RSPB’s explanation for camera deployment. Why? What evidence do they have that makes them think the RSPB is lying? [NB: see update at foot of blog]
- If the COPFS believed this camera had been placed “for the purpose of prosecution“, why on earth did it take them three years from the date of the shooting to decide to charge the suspect, and why did it take a further year of court hearings (nine in total) before the decision was made to discontinue proceedings? Why did the COPFS even mark this case for proceedings if they didn’t believe the RSPB’s version of events? What changed in the four years the COPFS have been considering this case?
- Why is the admissibility of video footage such a controversial issue in cases of alleged raptor persecution, and yet we see it being used in a current court case of alleged fox-hunting? We’ve spoken to one of the investigators who filmed the footage being used in the hunt case and he has confirmed he was filming covertly on private land without landowner permission as part of a wider research project on the behaviour of hunts, whether the hunts were involved in alleged criminal activity at the time or not. That’s no different to the circumstances of this hen harrier case.
- If the circumstances of how this camera footage was obtained were so controversial, why didn’t the COPFS allow the evidence to be assessed by the court? In a very similar case to this current one, in 2006 a gamekeeper was convicted of stalking a hen harrier and his conviction was based on RSPB video evidence. During that trial, there were several hours of legal argument about the admissibility of the video evidence. The Sheriff accepted the video evidence, commenting that the RSPB presence on the gamekeeper’s estate [from where the video was filmed] was “neither illegal nor irregular, and the intent to obtain evidence did not make it so“.
- We’ve discussed the issue of the admissibility of video evidence time and time and time again. In 2013, the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse told us that this very issue had been raised with the Lord Advocate (see here). Why then, four years later, is there still such inconsistency and lack of clarity about video admissibility?
- Why did it take the publication of this video footage, two weeks after the Crown’s decision to discontinue proceedings, for the COPFS to provide an explanation for their decision? Hen harrier persecution is one of the highest national wildlife crime priorities and there is huge and legitimate public concern about it. By remaining silent for two weeks, we would argue the COPFS has displayed an arrogance and contempt for that public concern. It’s not the first time the COPFS has been criticised for poor communications – the Scottish Environment LINK report on wildlife crime enforcement published two years ago was damning on this issue, and this year’s Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee report on the role and purpose of the COPFS reached a similar conclusion.
The general public, is, quite rightly, furious about how this case has been handled. It seems to us that the Crown Office is more concerned about how the evidence was obtained than the actual alleged crime of killing a protected, national priority species. Of course, the COPFS has to assess the evidential circumstances on a case by case basis, and we don’t question that at all. What we do question is, in this case, on what basis the COPFS decided to disbelieve the RSPB’s explanation for deploying the camera, and why it took so long, at such huge cost to the public purse, to decide to discontinue proceedings.
And let’s not forget that this case is one of three that the Crown Office has recently discontinued, all in the space of two weeks (see here).
For a comical interlude, have a read of the statement issued by the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association in response to the video footage. They say, “The SGA has no membership interest in this case. It is not our place to comment, therefore, on individuals involved in the alleged incident or to provide a critique of COPFS“. This is the organisation that is supposedly signed up to the Partnership for action Against Wildlife Crime and who serves on the PAW Raptor Group.
Do we have any confidence in the Scottish criminal justice system to address the on-going persecution of birds of prey? On current evidence, the answer is a resounding NO.
What to do about it? We would urge you to contact your MSP (find out who yours is here) and ask him/her to contact the Scottish Government’s Justice Minister, Michael Matheson to complain on your behalf about the handling of this case. The more MSPs that see this video footage, and hear about the public’s serious concerns, the better.
If you don’t live in Scotland but still want to voice your concerns, please email the Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, Margaret Mitchell MSP (Scottish Conservatives). Email: email@example.com
Don’t be fobbed off with platitudes or claims of “We can’t comment on individual cases”. Public scrutiny is fundamental to democracy and the public has every right to be asking questions about this ongoing, disgraceful shambles.
UPDATE 14.30hrs: RSPB Scotland has issued a statement in response to the claims of the Crown Office that the camera had been “deployed for prosecution purposes”. Here’s what it says:
In response to the Crown Office’s statement of 5th May as to why the video evidence would not be admissible in court Ian Thomson, Head of Investigations, RSPB Scotland said: “We do not agree with the opinion from the Crown Office that we were attempting to gather evidence for a prosecution. We installed a camera to monitor a protected breeding bird’s nest site, core business for a conservation organisation. We did not share the information about the nest site with anyone, as would be the case with any rare and vulnerable breeding bird species.
“The fact that an individual came and allegedly shot the female harrier, and that this was captured on film, was an incidental consequence of the camera’s deployment, in the same way that it could easily have captured footage of the nest being naturally predated or failing due to bad weather. It is very disappointing that the opportunity for the court to consider the issue of the admissibility or otherwise of this evidence, as has happened in previous cases, has been removed. Until today, we have received no rationale for the decision to drop the case despite the fact that a number of our staff have provided significant time and expertise in supporting the authorities with the prosecution case.”
UPDATE 8 May 2017: Some more thoughts on the shot hen harrier video (here)
UPDATE 11 May 2017: Cabrach hen harrier shooting reaches First Minister’s Question Time (here)