Further evidence to support a review of Countryside Alliance’s position on raptor group

A couple of days ago I wrote a blog about whether the Countryside Alliance’s position as a member of the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group (RPPDG) should be reviewed following the judge’s summary comments during the sentencing of huntsman Mark Hankinson, who had been convicted of encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence during a series of private webinars last year (see here).

The judge, Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram, had intimated in his summing up that the webinar contributions of former Chief Inspector Phil Davies and his references to ‘smoke screens’ and ‘creating elements of doubt’ [in my view, in order for hunting personnel to avoid potential prosecution] were questionable at best, although Mr Davies was neither charged or prosecuted.

Mr Davies is a member of the RPPDG as the Countryside Alliance’s representative.

Since I wrote that blog, more detail has emerged that further increases the justification for reviewing Mr Davies’ position on the RPPDG.

In an exclusive article published today by iNews, it is claimed that the police are ‘furious’ that only Mark Hankinson was prosecuted, because they wanted to see all six webinar contributors face prosecution but the CPS said there was insufficient evidence to proceed.

The article goes on to claim that The League Against Cruel Sports, which was the official complainant in the action, called on the CPS to reopen cases against Lord Mancroft and others involved in the meetings, including Mr Davies.

Whether there was or wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute all six, the fact is that Mr Davies’ participated in a webinar that covered the illegal persecution of wildlife, resulting in a conviction for Hankinson, and there hasn’t been any indication that Mr Davies, or any of the other contributors for that matter, challenged Hankinson’s criminal briefing at the time it was delivered. That may be insufficient evidence to prosecute but it does absolutely nothing for public confidence. In my view, Mr Davies’ continued involvement as a member of the RPPDG is no longer tenable on that basis alone.

Here is a copy of the iNews article:

Police officers behind the conviction of a leading figure in the fox hunting lobby have told i they are “furious” that a member of the House of Lords was not prosecuted.

Lord Mancroft, one of 92 hereditary peers who remain in the upper house, was one of six leading hunting figures who appeared in leaked videos that offered advice on deflecting protesters and police.

Police sources said they wanted the CPS to prosecute him­ but that prosecutors did not find sufficient evidence.

Last week Mark Hankinson, a director of the Master of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), was found guilty of encouraging and assisting hunts across the country to evade the ban on fox hunting.

Passing judgment in Westminster magistrates’ court, Deputy Chief Magistrate Tan Ikram ordered Mr Hankinson to pay a fine of £1,000 along with a contribution of £2,500 towards legal costs.

However, Devon police officers involved in the case since August 2020 said they believed Mr Hankinson should not have been the only person charged under Section 44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007.

One of the investigating officers said that they wanted “six charged, including Lord Mancroft, but the CPS only charged Hankinson. We were furious that Mancroft wasn’t charged.”

Another officer said that the CPS had originally considered charging six of the officials on the leaked webinars to around 100 invited hunt enthusiasts, but that the CPS only accepted the prosecution of Mr Hankinson.

The case centred on the practice of trail laying, which is not illegal and involves the laying of a scent for riders and hounds to follow. It replicates what a traditional hunt would have looked like, but without a fox being chased, injured or killed.

However, Mr Ikram ruled that Mr Hankinson was advising on how trail laying was being used as a cover for illegal hunting.

Investigating officers and anti-hunt groups claim Lord Mancroft was another of the MFHA officials offering advice.

Mr Ikram also referred to Lord Mancroft’s comments during what was meant to be a private online meeting for hunt masters.

Lord Mancroft, who was identified on the videos as Benjamin Mancroft, told the attendees to be careful what they record on body cams during a hunt.

It is common practice for both hunters and saboteurs to record hunts in order to gather evidence of any wrongdoing from either side.

During the webinars, which were recorded on 11 August last year, Lord Mancroft, who was chairman of the MFHA until May this year, said: “Those of you who are filming and recording, please don’t stand there recording the opposition [hunt saboteurs]… flying their gizmos and blowing horns and say ‘isn’t that marvellous that they haven’t seen us because we’ve just caught a fox behind them’ or something like that. I mean you’ve got to be very careful about who’s saying what.

Referring to Lord Mancroft’s comments, Mr Ikram told the court: “I did not hear from him and, of course, the defendant isn’t responsible for another’s words. That said, all the words of the others are relevant because it tells me something about the events he was speaking at and the ‘overall agenda’ in which he was also speaking. I do make clear that the defendant is to be judged wholly on what he said but others’ words, in my view, provide context to what he said.”

Mr Ikram also pointed to comments on the videos made by Phil Davies, police liaison officer at the Countryside Alliance and former chief inspector at Dyfed Powys Police.

Advising on the advantages of laying trails, Mr Davies told hunt masters: “Now, you know more about hunting than the saboteurs or the courts know, but what it will do is create that smokescreen, or that element of doubt that we haven’t deliberately hunted a fox, so if nothing else you need to record that and it will help us to write the defence to your huntsman.”

Responding to Mr Davies’s comments, Mr Ikram told the court: “Mr Davies is, of course, right that the speakers do know more about hunting than this court. This court does however understand well concepts such as creating smokescreens and creating ‘elements of doubt on deliberately hunting foxes’ (and I emphasise the word deliberately). This court is also very familiar with the writing of defences.”

The League Against Cruel Sports, which was the official complainant in the action, called on the CPS to reopen cases against Lord Mancroft and others involved in the meetings, including Mr Davies.

A spokeswoman for the League said: “Questions need to be answered by the CPS as to why others on the webinars were not dealt with in the same manner as Hankinson.

“The CPS needs to reinvestigate why those people were not charged. Because, obviously, the threshold of evidence was met for Hankinson so there surely are questions that need to be asked about whether the threshold had been met for Lord Mancroft and the others, like Phil Davies.”

However, a spokesman for the CPS said that only the evidence against Mr Hankinson was enough to bring a prosecution.

The CPS spokesman said: “We considered possible charges against six suspects and concluded that Mark Hankinson’s case was the only one that met our legal test for a prosecution.”

A spokesman for the MFHA said the group was considering an appeal against Mr Hankinson’s conviction.

Lord Mancroft and Mr Davies were contacted for comment. Devon and Cornwall Police declined to comment.

ENDS

As an aside, the League Against Cruel Sports has published a fascinating blog which provides some insight to how the prosecution against Hankinson came about – here.

UPDATE 25th October 2021: Police boot off Countryside Alliance rep from all wildlife crime priority delivery groups after hunting webinar trial (here)

15 thoughts on “Further evidence to support a review of Countryside Alliance’s position on raptor group”

  1. Yep the moment the appeal comes in is the moment the police and cps should get some balls and start charging the rest of them medieval neandertals

    1. I was in court on the day. I’d suggest it’s highly unlikely there will be any appeal. Hankinson has already paid his fine and the defence isn’t going to get any better, if they’d have had some ace cards up their sleeves they would have played them already. Even if there was an appeal they would be doomed to failure again, Judge Ikram is a very senior and highly respected judge so another one is unlikely to overturn what was a VERY definitive ruling.

      It should also be noted that the webinars were obtained by and brought into the public eye by the Hunt Saboteurs Association. While everyone else stood around and worried about the legal implications of the webinars the HSA put them in the public domain, under significant pressure from the CA to suppress them. They were posted on multiple public streaming sites as well as private ones, the CA tried to have them taken down but failed.

      There is no doubt in my mind that other should have faced charges as well, Particularly Lord Mancroft. Davies has done well to stay clear of everything but it’s clear that the CA are and always will be an insidious organisation with far too much power and the in the ear of policy makers in Government.

      1. It’d be useful if you had any evidence of “the CA tried to have them taken down but failed.” Not easy to get that, I would say.

        There again, getting sufficient evidence to procure a (single) successful prosecution has been a very long haul. Plausible deniability, etc.

        Shame that the judgement was not a deterent.

        1. I could probably get evidence, they certainly made complaints to YouTube which they removed and they bandied out claims of legal actions for alleged hacking. However the police investigated these claims and the complaints were either subsequently withdrawn or they found no evidence of it.

          The judgement is significant, the penalty largely irrelevant.

          Everyone in the land now knows, without doubt that trail hunting is a myth, a smokescreen for illegal hunting with hounds as we’ve been saying for over a decade. The major land owners should now remove any licensing for trail hunting and that’s going to hurt the hunts way more than the courts ever could.

  2. I can’t find this information to verify but I have it on good authority that 10 minutes before the second leaked webinar ended there were 155 participants and 138 participants as it closed. Not 100, which is being reported. And there are 170 hunting packs.

  3. You only have to follow Tim Bonner’s blog posts and tweets to see that the CA is unfit to be on any forum connected to conservation.

  4. I never thought for one moment that the Countryside Areliars should have had a place on the RPPDG in the first place. They are simply a pressure group for hunting and shooting with a penchant for being apologists for criminality. Its not about Davies, it’s their whole ethos suggests they should be kicked off. Incidentally in the Dyfed -Powys police area its still pretty pointless reporting hunts chasing foxes.

  5. Yup, the higher up the social ladder you go the less chance of anyone involved in crimes involving wildlife crime and the rich and powerful including their lackey’s becomes. Hardly surprising as at the core of the hunting class lies members of the Royal Family.

  6. The CPS get away with what, under other circumstances, would be considered corrupt decisions, if the evidence wasn’t just that they are inept.

    They should have to explain why, when there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Hankinson, they did not have enough evidence to prosecute Mancroft or any of the other co-conspirators. They could have gone for a criminal conspiracy charge at the very least.

  7. For those not familiar with the process. The police gather the evidence, but for many offences, the decision whether to charge a suspect rests with the CPS. As such a CPS prosecutor will review the evidence presented by the police, and reach a charging decision.
    It is worth noting that when the CPS are considering whether to charge a suspect with a criminal offence, the CPS must be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to provide a “realistic prospect of conviction”, and that a prosecution is in the public interest.
    These are two separate tests, and if the CPS deem there isn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute they won’t consider the 2nd test of public interest.

    In my mind this raises some important questions.
    Firstly when considering the evidential test, it is worth noting that when reviewing the evidence the exact terminology used by the CPS is that the evidence must provide a “realistic prospect of conviction”.
    Whilst this is an objective test, it does raise the question that when reviewing the evidence and deciding whether to proceed with a prosecution or not , is the CPS decision biased, and based more on the likelihood of whether there is sufficient evidence in which to secure a conviction, rather than whether there is sufficient evidence to charge a suspect?
    Are the CPS prejudging the evidence and acting as gate keepers in deciding whether suspected offenders are actually charged to court or not, based on whether the CPS consider that a court will find a suspect guilty or not?
    Should not the matter of a suspect guilt and conviction be a decision for the courts alone?
    Does this evidential test, in cases where the CPS are unsure of whether the evidence will prove a suspects guilt, allow some suspects to evade justice?
    I am sure the CPS would argue against these points, but they are questions which can be asked.

    As regards the public interest test. The CPS must then decide whether a prosecution is needed in the public interest, and they are expected to weigh the factors for and against a prosecution. In most cases it is in the public interest to prosecute. But what is the “public interest”? This could be deemed to be a subjective test, depending on what is considered to be in the “public interest”. Could political interests influence this? Or because a suspect is a persons in high office, could they evade prosecution, because it is not deemed in the public interest to prosecute, because the fall out to society might be considerable?
    Is such a test relevant if all are considered equal before the law?

    Another issue which is worth considering, is that when there is a victim, the CPS are required to explain to that victim, the rationale behind their charging decision if they decided to not to prosecute a suspect. If the victim disagrees with the CPS decision, then the victim can ask for a review of that decision.
    But what happens in cases when the victim is “The Crown”. Are the CPS required to explain the rationale behind a charging decision and to whom? The Police? Can the Police ask for a review, and how transparent is the review process?

    Whilst the CPS are independent from both the police and government, does the principles by which they work create an inherent bias, so that only those suspects which the CPS view as likely to be found guilty at court, are charged?

    As such I can understand why the League and some police officers are questioning why some of those involved in the webinar were not prosecuted.

    1. We worked with a QC who reviewed the evidence and suggested to the police who (in their opinion) could be charged and with what. This was supplied in document form and was very specific. It was this QC’s opinion that certainly others could have been charges, most notably Lord Mancroft.

      Regarding your point about the public interest. Part of that is also the balance between the chance of a prosecution and the money spent, can it be justified to spend the public purse pursuing a prosecution. Is that in the public interest? The legal costs of this case from the prosecution were £27K, the defence would have been significant too.

      1. Thanks. That’s an interesting and helpful comment.
        The fact an independent QC reviewed the evidence and suggested others could be charged, yet the CPS decided to only charge Hankison, does suggest that the CPS when making charging decisions opt for “the path of least resistance”, one where there is a greater chance of a conviction.

        It’s is also slightly concerning that money is a factor in deciding whether a suspect should be charged.
        It raise the question- Is justice based on the financial considerations that a wealthy defendant may plead not guilty, and employ an expensive defence legal team, which will increase the prosecution costs to the point where the CPS are having to consider whether it is in the publics interest to pursue the matter?

        I also wonder if when considering these costs, the CPS take into account not only the cost of legal proceedings, but also the cost of the investigation by the police and other bodies, and the impact of not pursuing the matter will have on them? (For charity organisations the effect could be detrimental to their cause if they are repeatedly unable to bring matters before a court?) (there was a comment made in the webinar about money, and one of the organisations opposed to hunting had apparently run out of money- Are “vested interests” able to exploit this, knowing they have wealthy backers?)

        This issue raises another question for wildlife crimes- Are the CPS reluctant to pursue a prosecution for wildlife crimes, where the victim is an animal/bird without all the human rights and support from organisations which may protest if potential offenders are not prosecuted, and if the costs associated with the case are in the CPS’s opinion not justifiable?

        It makes me wonder how many raptor persecution incidents investigated by the police have failed, not because an offender hasn’t been identified (possibly through circumstantial evidence), but where the CPS consider that the evidence does not pass either of their two tests. Either because the CPS do not consider there is a high chance of conviction, or because the defendant will plead not guilty and the costs associated with the case may in the CPS view be unjustifiable to the public purse, as the matter only concerns wild birds!! Evidence which if reviewed by an independent barrister may have resulted in different charging advice?

        I think the work of all those in bringing this case was commendable- so thank you if you were part of that team. It has exposed quite clearly how some of those involved in “country sports” think and operate.
        It has implications for raptor persecution, and understanding of the justice system, or failings of the justice system in bringing wildlife crime offenders to court.

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