The RSPCA has an income of about £110m a year, mostly from legacies and donations The RSPCA faces accusations that it is bullying and intimidating vets after lodging complaints with their professional body.
It has targeted vets who have given expert testimony on behalf of defendants prosecuted by the RSPCA for animal cruelty. The vets include a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).
Such complaints against expert veterinary witnesses are unprecedented by the RSPCA. The charity says the move is justified, partly because the vets concerned are well known expert witnesses who often appear on behalf of defendants, but mainly because expert evidence has been criticised in court hearings by judges.
This week, however, a conference organised by the British Veterinary Forensic & Law Association will hear vets and lawyers raise concerns over what they see as deliberate attempts by the RSPCA to deter vets from testifying for defendants.
Jonathan Rich, a barrister whose specialities include defending people charged with welfare offences, has been attacked in the past by animal rights activists.
He said: “Animal cruelty cases often turn on the advice provided by independent vets. It is vital vets should not be deterred by the threat of complaints to the RCVS or other legal tactics.
“The RSPCA’s behaviour risks creating an environment where people accused of animal welfare offences will not be able to get a proper defence.”
Bill Cartmell, a vet from Fareham, Hampshire, is one of those being investigated by the RCVS. He said: “Anyone who tries to defend people against the RSPCA now risks professional complaints. In one case where I was an expert witness the RSPCA instructed its solicitors to write to the courts before the hearing to say that I should not be allowed to testify because I was biased.
“They have no right to determine who stands as an expert witness; they are just a charity. The reality is that they are very rich and are effectively using their money to act as a self-appointed vigilante group.”
Colin Vogel, 64, a vet in Fakenham, Norfolk, who will be among the speakers at this week’s meeting, has testified in more than 100 cases, mostly for people facing prosecution for cruelty by the RSPCA.
He said: “In my case, the RSPCA have lodged complaints about me with the Law Society, where I am an accredited expert witness, and also with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and with the Society of Expert Witnesses.
“All those complaints were rejected but I have used the Data Protection Act to see their files on me, which appear to show that they are trying to gather evidence for further complaints.”
John Parker, RCVS president in 2005, appeared for the defence in the trial of a man accused of cruelty to horses. He said: “I am over 70 years old now and this case has been hanging over me for more than two years.”
Madeleine Forsyth, a vet from North Yorkshire who gave expert testimony for the defence in the same case, will describe this week how she faces a rare “wasted costs” application that could force her to pay an estimated £15,000. She said: “I have given evidence in a number of cases and the RSPCA does not like that.”
The RCVS said it could not comment on active cases. However, Harvey Locke, president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA) said a number of members had raised concerns about the RSPCA’s “potential discrediting of expert witnesses”.
The BVA confirmed that it had held a private meeting with the RSPCA last November to raise its concerns and would shortly be meeting the RCVS to discuss the matter again.
The RSPCA has an income of about £110m a year, mostly from legacies and donations. Critics suggest its “enthusiasm” for court cases is because they generate publicity that helps maintain its income.
David Bowles, director of communications at the RSPCA, rejects such claims. He said: “We carry out 138,000 investigations a year but last year only prosecuted about 1,000 people, which is a very small proportion.
“We have made complaints about some vets, but, regarding those who had appeared as expert witnesses, our complaint was linked to courtroom criticisms of their testimony.”
Hamish Rogers, the RSPCA’s case manager, said: “There are a few vets who earn their living appearing as expert witnesses for defendants, and they keep appearing time and again, and sometimes it is necessary to explore their credibility.”