The golden principle of the law of England and Wales is that a jury must be satisfied — beyond reasonable doubt — that an offence has been committed and that the perpetrator is the person in the dock.
How in the case of the Hunting Act could such evidence be gathered, much less presented? An RSPCA or LACS video of hounds apparently pursuing a fox may be damning evidence, you might think, but what if the drag line laid earlier in the day has also gone that way?
The point is that the defence has — subject to one or two restrictions — to prove nothing. The Crown must prove its case — to the hilt. In the recent case surrounding Scottish huntsman Trevor Adams, the Crown failed to do that.
With beagling, how does the Crown intend to prove that the So-and-So Beagles under the control of their huntsman hunted a hare, and disprove the huntsman’s belief that he was hunting a rabbit? It is clear from the way the Act is drafted that its intention is not to catch draghunters, hunters of clean boot and hunters of rabbits and rats.
So if someone — a huntsman, for example — is arrested after 18 February and charged with hunting a mammal, what would happen?
The defendant would be expected to explain himself, during a police interview or the witness box, or both. Beyond calling on some evidence in support of what he was doing, he has nothing to prove. In many cases, the defence lawyer will be able to make a submission of “no case to answer”, so that his client never reaches the witness box.
And what about hunt followers? Where would they stand legally? The vast majority of us who “ride to hounds” neither cause nor permit anything at all, let alone the hunting of a mammal by dogs. It seems therefore that anyone watching a foxhunt from horseback, provided they are not assisting, is immune from prosecution.
What of the masters, who would, in effect, have organised the hunting day? Conceivably, they might be prosecuted for conspiracy to hunt, but at that point the very simple principle of the Act is going to be lost in the legal minefield of what is involved in the law of conspiracy. As long as the masters and hunt committee take no part in actual hunting, they too are probably safe from prosecution.
Anyone who thinks hounds can quickly be stopped from chasing foxes — having been bred for the purpose for centuries — is deluding themselves. The antis say that hounds can convert to draghunting. Fine; let’s give it a try. Provided we have put in hand a system of training that is strictly adhered to throughout the next autumn hunting season, we cannot be criticised for this. The court may ask for records of that training; we must provide them. It may ask for examples of training methods; let them see such examples.
Provided we are seen genuinely to attempt to abide by the law during this Act, while preserving in our hounds their ability to hunt their appropriate quarry, we should have nothing to fear.
If every pack in the country resolves to keep going but to do what is permitted under this legislation, this Act will become a laughing stock. On the other hand, if we openly defy the Act and become martyrs, we need not be surprised if our horses, hounds and vehicles are seized.