Hare coursing and the Hunting Act 2004
At first blush one may view the Hunting Act as a resounding success. After all, the statistics are, on one view, quite impressive. Since it came into force in 2005, and with a success rate in the region of 70%, there have been in the region of 500 convictions (although it is worth noting that this figure includes convictions for ‘hunting’ and ‘hare coursing’ which are 2 distinct offences).
Notwithstanding the fact that both are clearly serious, it is the latter that has been grabbing the headlines in recent months, particularly in the South of England. Cambridgeshire Police recently publicised over 800 complaints between October 2016 and January 2017 and Officers in Essex recently launched ‘Operation Galileo’ as a means of tackling this problem. Politicians are also offering their backing, with the MP for Salisbury calling for tougher penalties as recently as this month.
Why is hare coursing seemingly on the rise?
There are a number of factors which are likely to have some bearing on this. Whilst this may seem contradictory given the number of convictions, offences of this type are often difficult to prove ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ (the standard of proof applicable in the Criminal Courts). The time and location where coursing takes place means that the likelihood of this being observed by the Police and other prosecuting bodies such as the RSPCA is often slim.
Another factor which is also likely to have a bearing on this issue is the penalty involved. When the Act first came into force the maximum sentence available was a fine of £5,000. It is worth noting that the Courts also have the power to forfeit any ‘dog, vehicle, or hunting article’ used in the commission of an offence. These powers changed in March 2015 so that the Courts now have the power to impose an unlimited fine. However, this is nullified to some extent by the guidelines issued to Judges across the Country which makes it clear that a number of factors need to be taken into account such as a defendant’s income and their ability to pay the fine within 12 months. Consequently, most fines are relatively modest and do not serve to act as a deterrent.
What can be done about this and can I be held liable as a landowner?
Section 5 of the Hunting Act makes it an offence to attend or participate in a hare coursing event. Importantly, it is also an offence to ‘knowingly facilitate a hare coursing event’ (defined as making it happen or easier for it to happen) or ‘permit land to be used which belongs to him for the purposes of a hare coursing event’. Landowners (defined under the Hunting Act as any person who owns, manages or controls, or occupies land) need to be careful. Although ‘knowledge’ of coursing is a prerequisite of the offence, landowners may still find themselves being questioned by the Police in the early stages of a criminal investigation even if they had no idea that coursing was taking place on their property. It is a grey area whether, if landowners only suspect that coursing is taking place on their land, they can be held liable!
Vigilance is the key. Landowners cannot afford to turn a blind eye in a time when law enforcement bodies are receiving an ever increasing number of complaints from members of the public. Whilst some may question the level of punishment available for this sort of offence, the Police do have a power of arrest and the power to search suspects and ‘on or in a vehicle, animal, or other thing’ if they reasonably believe that evidence of an offence is likely to be found.
Early liaison with the Police is therefore crucial in order to address evidential issues and bring those responsible to justice.
The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
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