Two weeks ago, we blogged about how the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS – the public prosecutors in Scotland) had dropped a long-running vicarious liability prosecution against landowner Andrew Duncan, who was alleged to have been vicariously liable for the crimes of his gamekeeper, who had killed a buzzard on the Newlands Estate in 2014. When pressed for a reason behind the decision to drop the vicarious liability case, the Crown Office said it was “not in the public interest to continue” but did not provide any further detail of how, or why, that decision had been reached (see here).
Ten days later, we learned that the COPFS had dropped another long-running prosecution, this time against gamekeeper Stanley Gordon who was alleged to have shot a hen harrier on the Cabrach Estate in 2012. No explanation was given for this decision.
And now today, we have learned that the COPFS have dropped another long-running prosecution, this time against Angus Glens gamekeeper Craig Graham who was alleged to have set and re-set an illegal pole trap on the Brewlands Estate in 2015. Again, no explanation has been given for this decision.
That’s three high profile prosecutions for alleged raptor persecution crimes, dropped within a two week period, with no explanation why.
One long-running case being dropped would raise an eyebrow; a second long-running case dropped a few days later would cause concern, but three long-running cases, all dropped within a fortnight, all on the eve of an actual trial? That is highly suspicious, even for the most unassuming observer.
Was it incompetence on the part of the COPFS? That is surely a possibility, especially as each of these cases has been running for months, at huge cost to the public purse. Why did it take so long to decide to abandon each case? Was it an issue with video evidence? We’ve been there before, although we’ve also seen successful prosecutions based on video evidence. If it was an issue with video admissibility (and we don’t yet know if it was, so this is just speculation), why did it take so long to reach that decision and anyway, wouldn’t admissibility be an issue for the court to decide, not the prosecutor? Was there another reason for discontinuing these cases? We don’t know, because the Crown Office is saying nothing.
Whatever it was, the discontinuing of these three cases will cause huge damage to public confidence in the Scottish criminal justice system. What do you have to do to get someone to stand trial for alleged raptor persecution in Scotland? We know how difficult it is to identify a named suspect, and we know that the evidential threshold is set extraordinarily high for this sort of crime, so when you do manage to secure enough evidence to charge and then prosecute somebody, it is massively frustrating to (a) see the cases dropped and (b) not be told why.
What is clear amongst all this murkiness is that the current system is not fit for purpose. This series of discontinued prosecutions just adds more grist to the mill for the introduction of a licensing system, and for basing that system on the civil burden of proof.
Meanwhile, we’re looking forward to the release of the video footage……