College could bring private prosecutions for act breaches

A new policy set to be drafted could enable the RCVS to bring private prosecutions for alleged breaches of the Veterinary Services Act (VSA).

Officials have been asked to draw up potential guidelines, despite concerns over costs and whether the available punishments would offer a sufficient deterrent to offenders.

A paper presented to the latest meeting of the college’s council, held in Glasgow on September 8, said the college had a strategic ambition to take a more active role in relation to breaches of the act.

Crime priorities

It acknowledged that, while the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) would usually be expected to bring cases, VSA offenses on their own were unlikely to be prioritized over more serious crime.

Case law also allows regulators like the college to use their members’ registration fees to fund enforcement activities and prosecutions.

The report, by college registrar Eleanor Ferguson and chief investigator Michael Hepper, said most cases of unqualified people treating animals were “minor infringements, and are generally only committed through a lack of knowledge and understanding of the act”.

It said many cases were resolved through advice or warnings, and argued that private prosecutions could provide a useful alternative to relying on the police and CPS.

‘Positive for RCVS’

The paper continued: “It would be a means of enforcement against those registrants who continue to practice when removed from the register, and successful prosecutions of illegal activity may be positive for the RCVS in respect of its role in protecting the integrity of the profession and animal welfare.”

But it also warned that bringing even one straightforward case to a magistrates’ court could cost around £20,000 plus VAT and it was unlikely that the costs imposed on defendants would cover anything close to the full amount invested in the case.

The maximum fine for a conviction under the VSA at a magistrates’ court is £100 and officials said that “might be unlikely” to act as a deterrent, while the option for defendants to have their cases heard at a crown court could substantially raise the cost.

The paper further advised it was understood that one regulator that already pursues prosecutions in its own sector, the Farriers Registration Council, only brings one or two cases to court every year.

Potential drawbacks

Other potential drawbacks highlighted include a lack of statutory powers to gather evidence, and the “extremely unlikely” prospect that an application to bring a private prosecution in either Scotland or Northern Ireland would be successful.

The report said there were no reported or published cases of the kind in Northern Ireland, while the power would only be granted in Scotland under “very special circumstances”.

Members voted for a further paper to be drawn up setting out a draft policy on prosecutions, as well as the kind of information that could be given to professionals and the public about breaches of the act.

The discussion came just days after the RCVS president, Melissa Donald, argued that urgent action was needed to update the laws relating to the veterinary sector for the 21st century. In a letter to the new Prime Minister Liz Truss, she said the present VSA – which goes back to 1966 – was “archaic and no longer fit for purpose”.

Advisory group

In separate discussions at the meeting, the council also approved plans to set up a public advisory group to help improve communications, as well as service and policy development.

The group, which will be chaired by a council member, is set to be made up of at least 30 members representing companion animal, equine and production animal owners and keepers. Details of how to apply to join the group are set to be released at a later date.

The meeting further saw reforms to the college’s policy for handling complaints against council and committee members approved.

The measures would allow for a case against a council member who resigns before a decision is made to be reopened if they are re-elected or re-appointed within two years of standing down.

Complaint outcomes

The proposals would also give the college’s president role the power to decide whether the outcome of a complaint is made public if it involves a health-related issue or further investigation by other authorities, as well as a right for council or committee members to request an independent review if a complaint against them is upheld.

The revised proposals were brought before the council after concerns were raised during an initial session in June.

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