Leading field sports lawyer Jamie Foster reflects on the failed prosecution of a West-country huntsman – charged with assault causing grievous bodily harm – in a case he says should never have come to court and demonstrates why law is the loser in such cases.
On September 21, 2016 Mark Doggrell, a farmer and the huntsman of the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale Hunt, was acquitted by a jury at the Taunton Crown Court of causing grievous bodily harm to Nicola Rawson by running over her on his horse.
It was a case that generated huge amount of passion and an equivalent amount of news coverage and media comment. It was also a case that should have never come to court.
On August 28, 2014 Ms Rawson was out with the Dorset Hunt Sabs. They were determined to disrupt the activities of the hunt that day. For their part, the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale had put on a children’s meet. They were trail hunting to introduce a group of about 30 children to the sport. The children were on horseback, some on tiny ponies being led by their parents.
Ms Rawson’s companion decided to park his Land Rover across a gateway, concerned about being blocked in if the vehicle was parked on the private land they knew they were trespassing on. This decision was to prove very costly to Ms Rawson. Nicola Rawson stood with another hunt sab, Martin Porritt, in front of the vehicle.
Unfortunately she was wearing UK army combat trousers, a dark top and a black balaclava. Mr Porritt was wearing dark clothing from head to foot. They were standing in front of a dark spoil heap with hedges and trees in front of them. Even more unfortunately the large blue Land Rover they arrived in obscured the view to oncoming riders.
Mr Doggrell rode through the two metre gap between the Land Rover and the fence post trying to catch up with his hounds, which were heading toward a field that led to a main road. The resulting collision between him and Ms Rawson resulted in her breaking several ribs. She was lucky not to have died in the accident, as was Mr Doggrell and the horse he was on.
I went to the police station with Mark two days later on August 30,2014. Mark was thoroughly interviewed and put forward his side of the story. He told the police he had not seen Ms Rawson or Mr Porritt standing in front of the Land Rover until he was upon them. He thought that he had avoided them as his horse swerved to the left. He was unaware Ms Rawson had become entangled in his horse’s back legs.
The police sent a full file to the CPS for advice. The CPS decided, quite properly, that they did not stand a reasonable prospect of a successful conviction based on the evidence that they had and so informed Mark that he would not be prosecuted. Following this decision Ms Rawson asked them to review that decision, as is her right under the new ‘victim’s right to review’ process.
As part of that process the CPS sent the file to one of the world’s leading equestrian movement experts, Dr Debbie Marsden. Dr Marsden lives in Scotland and has no connection to hunting. She is also a lifetime vegetarian. She was the epitome of an independent expert. Dr Marsden wrote a full report for the prosecution. Her opinion was that this accident was not caused by Mark Doggrell. There was nothing in his riding or the movement of the horse that suggested he had either intended to hit Nicola Rawson, or that had been reckless in riding through the gate. She felt it was very unlikely Mr Doggrell would have been aware that he had hit Ms Rawson and that his account was entirely credible. Dr Marsden concluded that on a frame by frame analysis the accident had been caused by Ms Rawson moving backwards into the path of the horse and this appeared to have happened because Mr Porritt had inadvertently pushed her backwards in his panic.
The CPS receiving this advice had to consider whether they had a realistic prospect of a successful conviction in order to change their decision not to prosecute. Inexplicably they decided they had and that they would proceed without Dr Marsden, or any expert at all. Dr Marsden’s report was disclosed to me as part of the evidence and I instructed her to act as the defence expert. Despite having heard two days of evidence, the jury took just over an hour to acquit. Had they not gone out over lunchtime they may have come to their verdict sooner.
There are many lessons to be learnt from this case. In their passion to protest an activity they detest, the Hunt Saboteurs must realise that they are sending vulnerable people into potentially dangerous situations in the countryside. It is time for them to pause and reflect. More importantly, it would appear that it is time to reconsider the way in which the ‘victim’s right to review’ operates.
Clearly the CPS must be independent and free from government interference. When it first considers whether to bring a case or not that decision is entirely a matter for it. The CPS will have its own procedures for reviewing and supervising such decisions. The decisions are those of the CPS. The problem comes when the new statutory process requires the CPS to look again at a decision that has been properly made in the first place. There is no doubt that this has a hugely undermining effect on the original decision maker. That process needs more oversight. In my view if a decision is made to prosecute having dropped a case, the law should require that a judge makes that final decision. It is the only way that I can see to ensure that the CPS is not subject to political pressure from interested lobby groups to bring a prosecution by popular demand. Cases like Mark’s are hugely costly in terms of court time and public resources. It is not good enough that they are embarked on as a path of least resistance. He has had a case hanging over him and his family for two years despite it being plain from the outset that he hadn’t committed the crime he was accused of. This is not a situation that can be allowed to repeat itself. It may be hard for anyone on the left of politics to identify with a case about a huntsman. The lessons of this case, however, are lessons for justice as a whole. If a decision can be made to bring a case like Mark’s to court it can be made the same way in any high-profile case.
If we are to avoid miscarriages of justice as a result of trying to ensure victims’ voices are heard we need to make sure it is a judge that is hearing them one way or the other.
[Originally published in the Plymouth Herald]
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