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RSPCA criticised over Essex house search

Photo: RSPCA

The High Court has criticised an RSPCA attempt to prosecute a dog breeder from Essex for allegedly causing unnecessary suffering to animals after an investigation was conducted without an appropriate search warrant.

Lord Justice Beatson said it was the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and important to continue observing legal restrictions on "officers of the state" - and bodies like the RSPCA acting with them - entering private land.

The RSPCA was challenging a decision of district judge Kenneth Sheraton at Colchester Magistrates' Court in June last year blocking the prosecution.

Judge Sheraton excluded evidence obtained during a search of premises owned by Deborah Fuller, 55, and Phil Sheldrake, 59, who pleaded not guilty to 16 charges of causing unnecessary suffering to dogs and failing to take reasonable steps to meet their needs.

The case related to 42 Ridgebacks and two Hamiltonstovare seized from Fuller and Sheldrake's house in Harwick Road, Lawford, in August 2013, when RSPCA inspectors accompanied officers from Tendring Council and the police on to their property.

The search led to RSPCA allegations that some 17 of the dogs were emaciated, six of them severely so, and one was suffering from a facial tumour.

All the dogs are currently being looked after by the RSPCA.

The trial was halted when it emerged that council officers had only obtained a search warrant under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act (EPA) to investigate complaints that the couple had caused a "statutory nuisance" because of the noise of the dogs barking and the smell coming from faeces that had not been cleared up.

Judge Sheraton found there was no warrant issued by a magistrate under the 2006 Animal Welfare Act (AWA) allowing an inspection of the condition of the dogs.

The judge said in his opinion a council officer had operated in a manner which "circumvented the refusal of a magistrate" to grant a warrant under the AWA.

He also said he put down to "inexperience and misunderstanding rather than malicious intent" Fuller being advised that the EPA warrant permitted inspection of the dogs when it clearly did not.

The High Court, London. Credit: PA Images

The RSPCA applied to the High Court in London for judicial review, arguing that even if the "dominant purpose" of the warrant granted under the EPA was to investigate a possible statutory nuisance, there was still scope for dogs found to be in poor condition to be seized and a criminal prosecution brought.

Dismissing the argument Lord Justice Beatson, sitting with Mr Justice Blake, said local council officers and the RSPCA had gone on to premises "intent on carrying out a search for purposes for which they had not been authorised".

The case involved "officers of the state aided by a well-funded charity, which does excellent work in many cases, using the power of the state to compulsorily enter land".

He added: "It is incumbent on officers of the state, and those who assist them in this way, to take care that the principle of legality that has protected us well over many centuries is observed."