TONY Wright, the first huntsman to be prosecuted under the Hunting Act, today won a High Court ruling which was immediately hailed as a new blow to the Labour Government’s anti-hunting legislation.
The two judges found in favour of Mr Wright (pictured) and rejected an appeal by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), meaning the prosecution of many Hunting Act offences will now be more difficult.
The League Against Cruel Sports brought a private prosecution against Mr Wright after he led out the Exmoor Foxhounds in April, 2005, just a few weeks after the Act came into force.
He was alleged to have signalled the hounds to pursue two foxes at Drybridge, on the Devon side of the county boundary, twice allowing them a ‘prolonged period of pursuit’.
Under the law, only flushing out foxes to be shot is still legal.
Mr Wright, now aged 54, of Simonsbath, was convicted in Barnstaple Magistrates Court in August, 2006, and was fined £500 and ordered to pay £250 costs.
However, the conviction was overturned by in Exeter Crown Court in November, 2007.
Now, a CPS appeal against his acquittal has been lost in the High Court.
The CPS argued it should have been for Mr Wright to prove that he had been hunting legally, and that ‘hunting a mammal’ includes ‘searching’ for it.
After the case, Mr Wright said he was relieved it was now all over and he hoped the case had put one of the final nails in the coffin of the Hunting Act.
He said: “This prosecution has now dragged on for over three years and during that time I have been living under the threat of a criminal conviction.
“If this judgment, though, makes it less likely that other people will face the sort of vindictive prosecution that I have been through, then it has all been worth it.”
Countryside Alliance chief executive Simon Hart said: “Even before today’s judgment only five people connected to hunts have been convicted of any offence since the Act came into force.
“The CPS argued in court that if it lost this appeal ‘prosecutions under the 2004 Act would rarely be viable’, so there should now be even fewer prosecutions.
“The Hunting Act is an increasingly pointless piece of legislation that offered little and has achieved less.
“Politicians of all parties are coming to realise that it has failed and it is now a question of when, not if, the Hunting Act is repealed.”
The ruling means those accused of breaching the hunt ban will be innocent until proven guilty, with the burden of proof lying with those bringing a prosecution.
Legal expert Tim Hayden, chairman of Taunton law firm Clarke Willmott, said: “This decision will reduce the risk of people being convicted where they are unable to recall or to prove the events that may have happened many months earlier.
“I would expect a reduction in the number of such cases being brought before the courts.”