11. Time limit for prosecution (Q6)
11.1 Section 6 of the consultation paper referred to paragraphs 7.42 and 7.43 of Lord Bonomy's report. These paragraphs discussed the challenges of completing an investigation into an alleged offence and commencing a prosecution within the timescales required by Section 136 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995. This legislation sets the general limit for bringing summary prosecutions as 'within six months after the contravention occurred or in the case of a continuous contravention, within six months after the last date of such contravention'. This time limit does not apply in cases where the legislation creating the offence fixes a different time limit.
11.2 Lord Bonomy recommended that the time limit for bringing prosecutions under the 2002 Act should be extended in line with other wildlife offences which allow for prosecution to take place up to three years after the offence has been committed.
11.3 Respondents were asked for their views on this proposal.
Question 6: Do you agree with Lord Bonomy's recommendation that the time limit for prosecution under the 2002 Act be extended and harmonised with other statutes which create wildlife offences? [Yes / No] Please explain your answer.
11.4 There were 215 substantive responses to Question 6 and 3,764 campaign responses. Among organisations and individuals, views were divided with 44% answering 'yes' and 56% answering 'no. This pattern of response was similar for organisations and individuals separately. However, among the organisational respondents, all but one of the countryside management and sporting organisations disagreed with Lord Bonomy's recommendation whilst animal welfare charities and campaign groups unanimously agreed. The 3,764 respondents submitting their views through campaigns organised by the International Fund for Animal Welfare the Scottish Greens also agreed. Thus, of the respondents who answered this tick-box question, 97% agreed that the time limit for prosecution under the 2002 Act should be extended and harmonised with other wildlife legislation. See Table 11.1.
Table 11.1: Q6 – Do you agree with Lord Bonomy's recommendation that the time limit for prosecution under the 2002 Act be extended and harmonised with other statutes which create wildlife offences?
|Countryside management and sporting organisations||1||8%||12||92%||13||100%|
|Animal welfare charities and campaign groups||7||100%||–||0%||7||100%|
|Other organisational respondents||1||100%||–||0%||1||100%|
|Total (organisations and individuals)||94||44%||121||56%||215||100%|
|Total (all respondents)||3,858||97%||121||3%||3,979||100%|
11.5 Altogether, 2,217 respondents (19 organisations, 139 individuals and 2,059 campaign respondents) commented at Question 6.
Views in favour of extending the time limit for prosecution
11.6 Respondents who answered 'yes' to Question 6 agreed it can be difficult to bring summary prosecutions within the current six-month time limit – for the following reasons:
- Hunting cases are often complicated and may involve multiple witnesses and suspects.
- Time may be needed for veterinary examinations, post-mortems and forensic reports.
- Where witnesses refuse to give statements, the investigation process may be prolonged.
- Prosecutions may also involve charges related to other statues.
11.7 These respondents emphasised that an extension to the time limit for prosecution would allow for adequate investigation and thorough implementation of the law. They were also in favour of bringing about greater consistency between the 2002 Act and other wildlife offences in relation to the time limit for prosecution. There was, however, a concern that an extended time limit should not result in 'cases being kicked into the long grass' and ignored.
11.8 Occasionally, respondents who answered 'yes' to Question 6 expressed alternative views about the time limit for prosecution – for example, there should be no time limit, or that there should be a two-year minimum timescale.
Views opposed to extending the time limit for prosecution
11.9 Respondents answering 'no' to Question 6 believed there was no need to extend the time limit for prosecution beyond the current six months. This group frequently highlighted that the new code of practice currently being drafted will require Police Scotland to be given advance notice of any fox hunting activity. In addition, information will be routinely recorded by foxhound packs ( i.e. the names of those involved in the activity, and any outcomes) and this information will be made available to the police in the event of an allegation of illegal hunting. This group believed that these steps would make the investigation of any allegations easier.
11.10 Some in this group were concerned that the proposal to extend the time limit for prosecution seemed (to them) to be driven by a mistaken belief that the 2002 Act must not be working because so few mounted hunts have been successfully prosecuted for illegal hunting.
11.11 There was a view that 'justice should be expeditious', and the current six-month time limit is sufficient if there is a case to answer. Occasionally, respondents in this group acknowledged the difficulties with the current time limit, but felt three years was too long. These respondents did not agree with 'harmonising' wildlife crime legislation for what seemed (to them) to be an arbitrary reason. There was also a view that an extension to the time limit could only be acceptable if it were not coupled with a requirement for the accused to prove that their conduct falls within one of the exceptions in the 2002 Act (as discussed in the previous chapter). A third view was that any extension should be granted on a case-by-case basis by the courts.
11.12 This group of respondents repeatedly expressed the view that three years is too long for an innocent individual to endure the threat of prosecution from (what may be) an unfounded allegation. They also highlighted a range of potential implications if the time limit is extended for up to three years:
- People employed as gamekeepers, or in similar roles, may face dismissal (if they are convicted), an inability to change employment (if they are accused), the loss of their firearms licence (it was suggested the police would seize the firearms of an accused), and significant personal strain.
- There is the potential for the accused not to receive a fair trial given the lapse in time between the events and the prosecution.
- Witnesses will have a less accurate recollection of what took place.
- Extended legal actions have the potential to result in an increased burden on police and courts.
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