The charity’s head of prosecutions, Hayley Firman, talks about a response to the Wooler Review and appropriate sentencing for animal abusers

There is no denying the RSPCA has become the third sector’s equivalent of Marmite. To some it is the righteous protector of mistreated animals. For others it is a politically motivated meddler in the affairs of people and institutions it disapproves of. The charity has been criticised for bringing ‘spurious’ private prosecutions against hunt organisers and ‘overzealous’ investigations against pet owners that ‘waste taxpayers’ money’ in the courts.

Love it or hate it, those working at the coalface of animal welfare care deeply for their four – or more – legged charges. ‘The RSPCA is an incredible organisation. Not just because of the work it does investigating, prosecuting, and preventing animal cruelty, but also for all its work that I didn’t appreciate until I began working here,’ says Hayley Firman, the charity’s recently appointed head of prosecutions.

Firman is a relative newcomer to the organisation. Having begun her career as a solicitor in private practice, she cross-qualified as a barrister and spent 22 ‘very enjoyable years’ at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). For ten years she held management roles in several high-profile divisions in the West Midlands, such as the crown advocacy department and the central public protection unit, dealing with serious offences such as rape, child exploitation, and deaths of children.

However, when the CPS began offering its staff voluntary redundancy in 2013, Firman decided the time was right to look for a new challenge. Eighteen months, and a lot of soul-searching later (which included seeing a professional life coach), Firman found her calling as the RSPCA’s head of prosecutions. ‘I’ve been really lucky. It’s perfect as it combines the great loves of my life. I’m able to combine my knowledge and skills as a lawyer with animal welfare, which I’m very passionate about.’

Firman has been in her post for only six weeks when I meet with her at the RSPCA’s headquarters in Horsham, West Sussex, in December 2015. Inside the society’s multi-million pound HQ, the ex-prosecutor runs one of the smallest, yet most contentious departments in the entire charity.

An easy target for those with an axe to grind against the prosecutions it brings, Firman’s department of 13 may be tiny compared to the behemoth that is the CPS, but it is comprised of an experienced group of five senior case managers, four legal support assistants, three cost recovery experts, and a communications manager, who together make decisions on around 1,200 animal welfare cases each year.

‘This team is very small when you consider this is a national charity,’ she explains. ‘It is a stark contrast to the CPS. We are both national organisations but, whereas I have five senior case managers making decisions, the CPS has hundreds making decisions every day. As a charity we are only here because of public support, while the CPS is there by the grace of the Prosecution of Offences Act. It’s embodied into legislation, we’re not. All our work is done by way of private prosecution and at a charitable cost from our public donations.’

The Wooler Review

The charity’s power to prosecute individuals has been questioned by hunt campaigners, MPs, and elements of the media in recent years. The Countryside Alliance, for example, has claimed that the society’s reliance on private prosecutions to deliver animal welfare is a ‘19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem’.

Calls for an independent assessment of the RSPCA’s powers increased following its decision to bring a £326,000 prosecution against the Heythrop hunt in David Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency in 2012. It was a decision that was criticised in parliament, after claims the case was brought to embarrass the prime minister. The then-attorney general, Dominic Grieve QC, wrote to the charity urging it to appoint a senior lawyer to review its prosecution policy. In 2013 the society agreed.

The man tasked with the job was Stephen Wooler, a former chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate. In his report, published in October 2014, Wooler found that hunts were engaging in ‘widespread and public disregard’ for the Hunting Act 2005, but recommended the RSPCA think twice before launching prosecutions due to the cost of doing so.

Instead, he proposed hunt prosecutions be handed over to the police and CPS, leaving the charity to pursue cases where the authorities failed to act. While recognising that the prosecutions department secured convictions in nearly 89 per cent of cases in 2013, Wooler nonetheless recommended strengthening the team into a fully fledged in-house prosecuting office, able to prosecute cases from start to finish with qualified lawyers attending court and supporting counsel.

CILEx qualified

Though Firman’s appointment was formalised as a result of Wooler’s review, his recommendation that her team be staffed with qualified legal practitioners is, for the moment, not supported by the new head of prosecutions. Instead, Firman is an advocate for experience over qualification. Though only one of her team is a fully qualified Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) fellow, the majority are CILEx trained and have risen from the ranks of the RSPCA’s inspectorate with a deep understanding of the Animal Welfare Act.

‘Our decision makers are extremely experienced welfare people,’ she says. ‘There’s no difference between them being CILEx trained and being qualified solicitors or barristers. They receive the inspectorate’s paperwork, review it in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors, advise whether to charge, and then manage the prosecution process.

‘People focus on our prosecutions but if you look at the numbers of complaints, it is such a small percentage of our work,’ explains Firman. ‘We received 1,327 cases from the inspectorate for the year by the end of November. The number of charges resulting in a conviction is 1,647 with 734 convicted defendants. Yet we’ve had 132,912 complaints so far in 2015. We get such a small proportion because the inspectors are dealing with welfare issues in a preventative way. There is a misconception that we prosecute every case.

We prosecute the right cases, which on their merits deserve to be prosecuted.’ Firman is busy preparing her department’s formal response to Wooler’s recommendations, due to be released publicly in March. It has been a clear baptism of fire for the new head of prosecutions, who, in addition to looking at improving prosecution efficiency, must split her time between dealing with media enquiries, casework queries, and liaising with the society’s inspectorate.

‘I’m also involved with our training department as we look for ways to educate people on animal welfare,’ she adds. ‘Most people our inspectors see aren’t bad or cruel. They’re either misguided or just don’t know how to look after an animal. Some just don’t consider that animals need feeding regularly and can’t cope living without any shelter.’

So, just how do you educate those who should arguably know better? One suggestion under consideration is the equivalent of a speed awareness course for those failing to care for their pets. ‘It’s a chance to spend a day with us and we’ll teach you basic animal welfare. At the moment inspectors have a choice: warn, caution, or prosecute. There’s not a lot in between. I’m passionate about education because, sadly, there are lot of people that take on multiple animals and still don’t understand they need looking after.’

For Firman, the abuse of animals should be treated in the same manner as abuse of people, although this doesn’t necessarily mean custodial sentences. Greater education and rehabilitation of offenders is paramount. It is an aspiration of the society, she explains, for there to be an equivalent community sentence order that would force offenders to attend an animal welfare course as part of their punishment.

‘There is no difference between anger towards animals and towards another human,’ she elaborates. ‘It’s a living, feeling thing and if you’re demonstrating that to an animal, you’re likely to demonstrate violence against another person. We are trying to be progressive and think outside the box about how to change people’s attitudes. I’ll never understand how someone can be cruel to an animal. It’s a frailty of human psychology.’

Chunky the Chihuahua

Despite her short tenure at the organisation, Firman has already experienced first-hand some of the horrendous cases seen every day by its inspectorate. The most common cases she has experienced to date involve starving dogs, chronic skin conditions that have not received veterinary treatment, and animals living in squalid conditions.

One horrifying case that springs foremost to her mind, however, is that of Chunky the Chihuahua puppy, who was stolen from his home by a gang of teenagers before being drugged, set on fire with lighters, and having his neck and leg broken, before finally being thrown into a bush to die.

The attack, which took place in Margate, Kent, made headlines late last year and, although it occurred before her arrival at the charity, Chunky clearly has had an impact on Firman: ‘What frightens me is that there are members of our society prepared to be so mindless in their violence towards animals, and the extent of that cruelty is enormous. Thankfully Chunky has made a full recovery and the young men have been prosecuted.’

Three of the youths involved were disqualified from keeping animals for five years, given a 12-month referral order, and ordered to pay costs. One was made to pay £1,000, while the other two were ordered to pay £500. The fourth teenager was given the same ban and referral orders along with a demand for £5,800 in costs.

Despite the successful outcome, dealing with such heart-wrenching acts of brutality must surely be difficult, even for a case-hardened former Crown prosecutor like Firman. ‘It is difficult,’ she admits. ‘I still have to take a breath sometimes, but I’ve had a long history of dealing with human abuse. You never get used to it. You have to deal with it professionally. I do get shocked, just as when I worked for the CPS and read about some different level of depravity.

‘The tragedy of human abuse is that some people never recover and live with their trauma all their life,’ explains Firman. ‘The wonderful thing about animals is that when you take them out of an abusive situation, they flourish. For me that’s the success story. I cope with those kind of cases because I know what the outcome will be.’

Fit for purpose?

The introduction of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, with its tougher penalties on offenders – including fines of up to £20,000, a maximum jail term of 51 weeks, and lifetime bans on owning pets – was hailed as a breakthrough in the fight against animal cruelty when it replaced the antiquated Protection of Animals Act 1911. The law also gave the RSPCA greater powers to intervene, but with abuse and neglect far from diminishing, and the society’s powers under question, is the Act still fit for purpose?

‘The challenge is that it’s open to interpretation,’ replies Firman. ‘For example, we’re currently referring a case to the High Court to get clarification on section 8 and what constitutes a “dog fight”.’ She explains her department is currently prosecuting a number of defendants suspected of training fighting dogs to attack wildlife.

‘It’s a very serious welfare issue, not only because of the numbers but also the manner [in which] these animals are being killed,’ she continues. ‘There’s been discussion over whether it’s hunting or dog fighting. But this isn’t a traditional red coat hunt. These are groups of men arranging to go out into the countryside to kill wildlife. As a charity we take that very seriously.’

While acknowledging that mistakes have been made, Firman suggests that critics of the charity should be careful what they wish for – if that wish is for the organisation to be effectively neutered and unable to bring wrongdoers to justice.

‘The RSPCA is taking the lead in trying to prevent animal cruelty, a serious issue in society. If you look at what we do as a whole rather than just the prosecution department, it is an amazing job. It rescues and prevents cruelty in a huge number of cases. Without this organisation I wonder what on earth would happen to all these animals,’ she says. ‘While we might not get it right all of the time – and of course a number of regrettable decisions have been made – on the whole we do a remarkable job with our prosecution work, especially when those that are empowered to, such as local authorities and the police, do nothing. We pick up the pieces.’

This article first appeared in Solicitors Journal and is reproduced with kind permission.