These cases and the publicity surrounding them have caused intense anguish to those wrongly accused. In two cases in Harwich and Portsmouth before Christmas, Nigel Weller, a Lewes solicitor, finally exposed how RSPCA witnesses had concerted their evidence in advance, using a proforma document to "coach" witnesses in what to say - about which magistrates and a judge expressed grave concerns. In each case the defendants, accused of depriving a dog and two cats of a balanced diet, were acquitted on all charges.
In the same month Maidstone Crown Court heard the appeal of Craig Sargent, a Kent farmer, who had been fined £12,000 and ordered to pay £20,000 costs on five charges brought by the RSPCA including four of cruelty. After hearing his barrister, Jonathan Rich (briefed by Mr Weller), Judge Jeremy Carey agreed that the RSPCA had been unable to produce any evidence of cruelty.
In Norwich in January, Judge Philip Browning was critical of the RSPCA's conduct in seizing a much-loved pony, Florry, which had been with Martin and Gina Griffin's family for 20 years. The RSPCA held Florry in an animal sanctuary for over a year, claiming that she was "emaciated". The Griffins' vet, Charlotte Mayers, made it clear from the start that vets from her practice were treating the horse, which was laminitic and needed to be kept thin for that reason. Colin Vogel, the author of the RSPCA's own veterinaray manual on horse-care supported her views. At one point the RSPCA had wanted to put Florry down, but after 15 months she was finally re-united with her owners.
In February, after another five days in court, a cruelty case against Annette Nally, owner of Holly, a German shepherd, was called into question when it was found that RSPCA documents alleging her failure to treat the dog properly for ear and bowel conditions related to another dog. Holly died six months after the RSPCA had seized her (as Miss Nally only discovered five months later). In acquitting her on all charges, Judge David Chinnery praised her obvious care for her animals and her "impressive" evidence, and also that of her chief witness, Colin Vogel.
The Self-Help Group of farmers and others has existed for nearly two decades to put anyone experiencing difficulty with the RSPCA in touch with specialist welfare lawyers and vets. They have never been busier and cite scores of other instances in recent years. None is more shocking than that of PC Jonathan Bell, a Stoke-on-Trent policeman who in 2004 was called to a night-time disturbance where a cat had been squashed flat by a car. The RSPCA could not be contacted, so he put the cat out of its misery with a spade.
PC Bell was prosecuted for cruelty by the RSPCA and the case dragged on for two years, at a cost of £50,000. After his initial acquittal, the RSPCA appealed. Finally, in April 2006, the High Court threw out the case, prompting the Federation of Companion Animal Societies to comment that some of the RSPCA's prosecutions "seem to have a political agenda" rather than being concerned with "animal welfare". The growing number of people who fall foul of that agenda would heartily agree.