As regular blog readers will be aware, the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), the public prosecutors in Scotland, have, in the space of two months, either dropped or refused to prosecute five cases of alleged wildlife crime. These include:
25 March 2017 – gamekeeper John Charles Goodenough (Dalreoch Estates), accused of the alleged use of illegal gin traps. Prosecution dropped due to paperwork blunder by Crown Office.
11 April 2017 – landowner Andrew Duncan (Newlands Estate), accused of being allegedly vicariously liable for the actions of his gamekeeper who had earlier been convicted for killing a buzzard by stamping on it and dropping rocks on to it. Prosecution dropped due to ‘not being in the public interest’.
21 April 2017 – gamekeeper Stanley Gordon (Cabrach Estate), accused of the alleged shooting of a hen harrier. Prosecution dropped as video evidence deemed inadmissible.
25 April 2017 – gamekeeper Craig Graham (Brewlands Estate), accused of allegedly setting and re-setting an illegal pole trap. Prosecution dropped as video evidence deemed inadmissible.
21 May 2017 – an unnamed 66 year old gamekeeper (Edradynate Estate), suspected of alleged involvement with the poisoning of three buzzards. Crown Office refused to prosecute, despite a plea to do so by Police Scotland.
Two of these cases (Cabrach Estate and Brewlands Estate) were dropped due to the COPFS deciding that the use of RSPB video evidence, on which the prosecutions relied, was inadmissible.
There has been widespread public condemnation and political concern about these decisions, especially in the case of the alleged shooting of a hen harrier on Cabrach Estate in Morayshire. The Crown Office has attempted to explain the decisions but many questions remain unanswered for those of us who don’t have the legal expertise, or all the case details, to challenge the COPFS decisions.
We read with interest, then, a blog that was published yesterday written by Peter Duff, Professor of Criminal Justice at Aberdeen University. His blog, entitled ‘The law of evidence, video footage, and wildlife conservation: did COPFS make the correct decisions?‘ deals specifically with the Cabrach & Brewlands cases and can be read here.
We thoroughly recommend reading it. It’s important to read the perspective of an independent, expert academic who has no axe to grind on either side of the debate. It’s hard for those of us who are either tainted by years of frustration about criminal raptor killers getting away with it, or those with a vested interest in raptor killers avoiding prosecution, to take an unbiased view of the law and its application, so Professor Duff’s opinion is a valuable contribution to the debate. Not only that, it’s great to see this issue receiving wider coverage than the usual commentators.
That’s not to say we agree with his interpretation though! In short, Professor Duff concludes that the COPFS decisions were “perfectly reasonable”, and he explains his reasoning for this, but, crucially, some of what he writes does not take in to account previous case law on this issue, perhaps because he was unaware of such cases?
For example, Professor Duff states: ” In my view also, for what it is worth, I agree that the courts would not excuse such an irregularity in obtaining the video evidence and prosecutions would be fruitless“.
First of all, the Scottish courts HAVE excused the irregularity of obtaining video evidence without the landowner’s permission and far from those prosecutions being ‘fruitless’, they actually resulted in the conviction of the accused (e.g. see the Marshall trial here and the Mutch trial here).
During the Marshall 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“. This is no different to the recent Cabrach case.
During the Mutch trial, again involving several hours of legal argument about the admissibility of evidence, the Sheriff accepted that the RSPB had not placed the video camera with the purpose of gathering evidence for prosecution, but they had placed it as part of a legitimate survey in to the use of traps. This is no different to the recent Cabrach case.
There is also an on-going trial at the moment (concerning alleged fox hunting) that relies heavily on video evidence filmed on privately-owned land without the landowner’s permission. The court has accepted the video evidence as admissible (although we can’t comment too much on this as the trial is still live).
So on that basis, we profoundly disagree with Professor Duff’s opinion that covertly filmed video evidence would not be accepted by the Scottish courts. It already has been, on several occasions, resulting in convictions. The question remains then, why did the COPFS decide it was inadmissible? Somebody within the Crown Office (presumably an experienced lawyer from with the Wildlife & Environmental Crime Unit) decided, when this case was first marked, that the video evidence was admissible. It took nine court hearings over a period of a year before the COPFS decided that the video evidence was inadmissible. We still don’t know the basis for that decision. And the other related question to this is why didn’t the COPFS let the court make the decision? It’s this inconsistency of approach that has caused so much confusion, and as Professor Duff writes, ‘bewilderment’.
Professor Duff also writes: “The actions by the RSPB [of placing a covert camera] are a breach of the right to privacy of both the estate owners and their employees (whilst not quite analogous, imagine if your neighbour installed a secret camera to record everything that went on in your garden)“. Sorry, but it’s quite absurd to compare these two scenarios given the size difference between these two types of landholdings. Nobody could argue that placing a covert camera to film somebody’s back garden wouldn’t be a breach of privacy, as you’d reasonably expect to see the human occupants on a daily basis. But on a multi-thousand acre estate, far from any private dwelling? Come on, “not quite analogous” is one hell of an understatement. And not only that, in the Cabrach case, the camera was aimed at the nest of Schedule 1 hen harrier, which by law cannot be approached/disturbed without an appropriate licence from SNH so you wouldn’t expect to film anybody anywhere near the nest.
All in all then, Professor Duff’s interpretation of the law, whilst useful, still doesn’t explain, or justify, the decisions made by the Crown Office in these two cases.
And questions still remain about the decisions to drop the other three cases (gamekeeper John Charles Goodenough of Dalreoch Estates; landowner Andrew Duncan of Newlands Estate; an unnamed gamekeeper of Edradynate Estate), none of which were reliant upon video evidence.