However, to return to Bleak House, Angela has always said I should not comment on things I know nothing about and while I have usually replied that there is no point at my age of changing the habits of a lifetime, I did agree that I would stop criticising Charles D until I had actually read a complete book. So now I have and I am pleased to have done so although I found much of it very heavy going. But it was particularly interesting because it is his book that focuses most sharply on the workings of the legal system. It seems to me that there is a great deal in the truism that the more things change the more they stay the same. Both Dickens in Little Dorrit and Trollope in The Way We Live Now, write in considerable detail about the irresponsible activities of banks and bankers and it seems to me that great chunks of their plots and characters are still relevant today as evidenced by the current hedge fund scandal in the Untied States.
The law is no exception to these observations and these thoughts passed through my mind as I sat in a Crown Court this week, the activities of which, other than their length, would have done credit to Jarndyce v Jarndyce, the core of the plot of Beak House, in which a case in Chancery goes on for so long that every last penny of a valuable estate being challenged by competing claimants is absorbed by the lawyers so when it is finally resolved there is nothing left.
The case being heard is one in which I have been involved as an expert witness and was an appeal against a very questionable judgement by a Magistrates Court earlier this year in a case brought by the RSPCA.
I should explain at this point that the RSPCA is not one charity but many and while the small locally based organisations do excellent work in caring for and rescuing animals in their region everyone should be aware although they have ‘the name’ they are independent, separate organisations who have to fund themselves and receive nothing (yes – nothing!) from ‘head office’. If you leave money in your will to ‘the RSPCA’ (and most of its income comes from this source) it automatically goes to headquarters at Horsham when you pop your clogs: your local charity (other than the very few shelters which are directly controlled) will not receive a penny. So when I talk about the RSPCA, I am referring to ‘headquarters’ and their income of around £100m a year. Its main preoccupation seems to me just to generate publicity which will keep the charity in the forefront of the minds of people who love animals so that when their solicitor suggests bequests, they are the organisation which comes to mind.
In this case, a man had collected his two ten year old bitches from a kennel - which I have visited and can confirm is one of the best in the UK. One, it is suggested, may have been lethargic and had been off a food for a day or two. Having actually managed kennels I know that most dogs are healthy and behave normally and consequently you remember very little about them and their stay. If a dog is not behaving normally and/or shows signs of sickness you spot them quickly and do something about it. The kennel’s veterinary surgeon gave clear evidence that the kennel tended, if anything, to be over cautious and that if there was ever a problem dogs were taken in straight away and having been established for twenty years the kennel has an unblemished record. The bitches were brought out of the kennel when their owner came to collect them and one was quieter than usual but not showing any symptoms of illness. It’s hind quarters were wet but it was explained that she had apparently and inadvertently fouled herself and been bathed – entirely reasonably.
On his way home, the owner become concerned and told the Court that he had smelled urine. The dog had not urinated in the car (and I personally wonder whether he smelled the remains of disinfectant) and did not urinate at the veterinary surgery when he took the dog to his own vet two hours later. The young veterinary surgeon examined the bitch and diagnosed a likely pyometra for, by the time it arrived on his table there was some puss seeping from the vulva. The bitch was put on a drip and was successfully operated on the following day.
As you will know, a closed pyometra is extremely difficult to diagnose. It develops slowly, usually a few weeks after a season but shows no symptoms until the final few hours when it advances rapidly and can lead to sudden death. Owners have put their pet to bed last thing at night and come down in the morning to find the dog dead or dying having had no indication that anything was wrong other than, perhaps, she was a bit below par on the preceding day.
Given the quality of care at this establishment I am certain that had the bitch remained in the kennels for a few more hours the discharge would have been noticed and she would have been taken to their vet but the owner reported the matter to the RSPCA saying that the kennels had not properly cared for his dog. An inspector interviewed the owner and then turned up at the kennels, unannounced, and took witness statements from the owners and the manager. The kennels owners wanted to co-operate.
They got their headlines ‘ XXX kennels to be prosecuted by RSPCA’. On both occasions, had the whole process not been so distressing for those involved in the farce, I could almost feel sorry for the Barrister acting for the society. He had no evidence of any substance and spent hours (and I mean hours) repeating questions over and over again trying to get an admission on which he could hang some sort of case. In my evidence I was asked a number of questions about the 1963 Act, about the Model License Condition (which I helped to write) and the Animal Welfare Act. His point was that kennels had a responsibility to take a dog to a vet if it was ill. I agreed – of course they do. Unfortunately they was no evidence that the dog showed any symptoms of illness.
At the Magistrates Court hearing the kennel owners were exonerated but the kennel manager was found guilty by a magistrate sitting alone who during the two day hearing complained of a headache and insisted that she need to go home early.
In my view, the RSPCA should be ashamed of themselves, not just because of the misery caused by this action against hard working and innocent people but for the inevitable damage the media inflicted on the business by responding to the Society’s publicity machine as well as the waste of the enormous sum of money expended - which had been collected from ordinary people who believed they were contributing to an organisation which would use it to help animals in real distress.
Be assured this is one of many such actions.