Saturday, 20 September 2008
Disability Now has assembled evidence that Britain’s best-known animal charity, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), often prosecutes disabled people for alleged animal welfare offences.
Katharine Quarmby reports;
The prosecution record of the RSPCA, which as part of its remit investigates alleged animal cruelty offences, is causing concern to disabled people and mental health campaigners.
Many cases have been highlighted to Disability Now by concerned solicitors, vets and disabled people themselves. Here is a small selection:
• In 2007, the owner of an animal sanctuary in Sunderland, Clifford Spedding, who had been prosecuted by the RSPCA for cruelty offences, had his suspended jail sentence lifted and his banning order for keeping animals rescinded on appeal. Allowing the appeal, Judge Peter Armstrong said: “The appellant began to suffer from depression and was simply unable to cope with a large number of animals and birds that had been dumped upon him,” and he praised the work he had done over many years to protect animals.
• A nurse, Stephanie Greatorex, who had depression, was also prosecuted last year for causing unnecessary suffering to her dog. She is now receiving treatment for her depression but has been given a lifetime ban on keeping animals.
• The RSPCA prosecuted Rosalind Gregson for animal cruelty in 2005. Her son had just died, and Mrs Gregson had depression. At the time of her conviction, the RSPCA’s prosecutor admitted: “It is not the prosecution’s case that this defendant maliciously caused cruelty to the animals in her home, simply that she allowed her obsession to collect animals, as it were, to overwhelm her.” Animal hoarding is recognised in the United States as a mental health condition. Mrs Gregson was jailed for three months but was released on appeal. Judge Andrew Gilbart said that a community rehabilitation order was more suitable “as it would include counselling to help her deal with her grief” at the death of her son and her other mental health problems.
• The home of pensioner Betty McDiarmid, a 75-year-old wheelchair-user with diabetes, was raided twice by the RSPCA. The first raid resulted in a local vet concluding that none of the animals were suffering. However, a couple of weeks later, the RSPCA deemed another raid necessary and brought in its own vet, who concluded that , every one of Mrs McDiarmid’s animals were suffering and should be seized. The RSPCA decided to prosecutebut the trial was halted when Mrs McDiarmid became too ill for it to proceed. She died soon after her trial. Older people, too, lawyers say, are routinely prosecuted. Lawyers claim that many disabled and older people are prosecuted for neglect during short periods when they are unwell. Instead of being given extra support, they are prosecuted and their cases publicised in the press. The RSPCA investigates animal cruelty offences. It is also one of a tiny handful of charities that launches private prosecutions. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds used to carry out private prosecutions, but following criticism of its conduct as a prosecutor it ceased to do so and it now provides evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Scottish SPCA) does not prosecute either – it hands over the cases which it investigates to the Procurator Fiscal’s Office, the Scottish equivalent of the CPS. A Scottish SPCA spokeswoman says it works with disabled people and their support workers, in cases of possible neglect, to “improve conditions for the animal”, and says that many disabled people “are excellent pet owners”, such as Adrian Lynn (pictured).
The CPS tends not to prosecute disabled people, unless the seriousness or other circumstances of the case demand it. Its code for Crown Prosecutors states: “A prosecution is less likely to be needed if [it] is likely to have a bad effect on the victim’s physical or mental health, always bearing in mind the seriousness of the offence; the defendant is elderly, or is, or was at the time of the offence, suffering from mental or physical ill health, unless the offence is serious or there is a real possibility that it may be repeated… Crown prosecutors must balance the desirability of diverting a defendant who is suffering from significant mental or physical ill health with the need to safeguard the general public.”
Despite the RSPCA’s claim that it “might not prosecute” in the case of a “defendant suffering from significant mental or physical ill health”, Disability Now’s investigation highlights many disabled defendants who were nonetheless prosecuted by the charity.
Most defendants in an RSPCA private prosecution are featured heavily in the press, on the internet and often on television. This coverage enables animal rights activists to take direct action against them. Such harassment can have a particularly significant effect on people experiencing mental distress. Rachel Hurst, director of Disability Awareness in Action, says: “The RSPCA is prosecuting people who need help, rather than punishment, instead of those who are deliberately committing acts of cruelty.” She adds: “If someone with a mental health condition cannot care for their animal they should not be prosecuted, but of course the pet should be protected.”Anna Bird, policy officer for Mind, says it is worrying that so many people with mental health problems appear to be being prosecuted by the RSPCA. “It is only right that if someone commits a crime that they are held to account, but when there are compelling underlying factors then this should be taken into consideration. People who are experiencing mental distress can be particularly vulnerable.“The RSPCA should adopt a measured response in its handling of such cases.”An RSPCA spokeswoman says: “We certainly do not target disabled people for prosecution.” But she admits that the charity does not keep statistics regarding defendants’ impairments.“RSPCA inspectors receive comprehensive training on the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 including the provisions relating to those who may be mentally disordered or otherwise mentally vulnerable… if in doubt they are treated as such and given the required legal protection. If we proceed to court it means the prosecutions department, which is separate from the inspectorate, has been satisfied with that process, and if the court has convicted, then so too have they.”