Case Summary: RSPCA v Mccormick and others [2016] EWHC 928 (Admin)

deerWhat were the facts?

Between 2012 and 2014, the respondents (Mr Mccormick and four others known collectively as the “Devon Destroyers”) allegedly went into the countryside at night with one or more lurcher-type dogs. Their purpose was to seek out wild animals, including deer, foxes and badgers, which they allowed their dogs to pursue, attack and kill. Inevitably, fighting between the dog(s) and the pursued animals would occur, and on occasions the dog(s) themselves suffered injury.

What was the applicable law?

The relevant legislation in this case was s.8 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (“the 2006 Act”). In particular, s.8(1)(a) provides that it is an offence to cause an animal fight to take place, or attempt to do so. An “animal fight” is defined by s.8(7) as “an occasion on which a protected animal is placed with an animal, or with a human, for the purpose of fighting, wrestling or baiting”.

Consideration was also given by the court to the Hunting Act 2004. The court was keen to ensure the Acts’ differing purposes were not confused with one another, particularly in light of the much harsher sentencing regime permitted by the 2006 Act.

What were the arguments for the appellant?

The appellant, the RSPCA, argued that the act of allowing a dog or dogs to pursue, fight and kill a wild animal constituted an “animal fight” for the purposes of s.8(7) of the 2006 Act. They argued that the lower court had wrongly narrowed the application of s.8(7) by introducing a requirement that both the protected animal (the dog(s)) and any animal with which they were placed (the wild animal) must not be free to escape. They disagreed that the animals’ escape must be restricted or controlled by the participating individuals.

What were the arguments for the respondents?

The respondents argued that their acts did not fall within the criteria required for “animal fighting” within the 2006 Act. They argued that to hold the act of a protected animal fighting with its quarry during the process of hunting as an “animal fight” would conflict with Parliament’s intention in enacting the Hunting Act 2004. They argued that the purpose of s.8(7) of the 2006 Act was to outlaw intentional fights, wrestling or baiting which arose in a contrived and/or artificial setting.

What did the court decide?

The court dismissed the RSPCA’s appeal.

The court disagreed that the lower court had erred in its interpretation of s.8(7) of the 2006 Act, and agreed that the term “placed with” should be given its ordinary meaning. An animal will only be “placed with” another animal for the purpose of fighting under s.8(7) where two requirements are satisfied: first, the requirement of physical proximity between the animals, meaning both had to be immediately present without a hunt or chase; and second, the requirement of control such that the other animal cannot escape. This, the court held, meant that the fight could not “be the by-product of a chance meeting” and instead it must be “a contrived or artificial creation specifically for the purpose of a fight during which, on the assumed facts, the other animal has no natural means of escape” (para.31).

Furthermore, the court held that this interpretation avoided the “very odd anomaly” which would have occurred if hunting activities outlawed by the Hunting Act 2004 (which are punishable only by financial penalties) were also prosecutable under the 2006 Act and therefore punishable by imprisonment for up to six months and/or disqualification from keeping animals for life.

Written by Abigail Scott.