Expert lawyer Stephen Ede from Bridge McFarland solicitors looks at the legal implications that affect many shooters operating near roadways.
Many gamekeepers and other enthusiasts engaged in their chosen sport will often come close to public highways during the course of their duties or enjoyment. Common sense should always prevail of course, and obvious care should be taken with regards to ensuring no shot birds will not be carried by momentum on to roads, footpaths or indeed any nearby private property.
The law clearly prescribes that it is an offence to shoot within 25 feet of the highway if in consequence thereof any user of the highway is caused harm, inconvenience or alarm.
This is a much misunderstood offence, because people think that the actual offence is made out simply by shooting within that distance of the highway. I regularly go on country shoots where many drives involve birds being driven from one side of a minor road to the other, and where as a matter of course guns stand within that prescribed distance of the highway.
To illustrate this with an example, let me tell you about a particular case of mine. I dealt with it last year, and at the time it was widely reported in a number of shooting publications. It involved a young but sensible acquaintance of mine, who was observed by a police woman shooting in proximity to the highway. His guns were actually confiscated on the spot by the police, and proceedings were eventually taken against him.
From a very early stage in the subsequent proceedings, there was some notable discomfort within the Crown Prosecution Service; at one stage it appeared to be saying, incorrectly, that the shooting took place on the highway itself. Certainly the CPS appeared to have some difficulty in clearly making its case against my client, struggling to meet all of the points needed to proceed from the original intended offence of actually shooting within 25 feet of the highway. Apparently, in an attempt to find some evidence for the case, a police helicopter was also deployed – at great expense to the taxpayer – in order to take aerial photographs of the land involved. Throughout all of this, there was also strong pressure applied to both the young man and his mother for him to accept a caution.
Invariably, my advice is never to accept a caution. A caution is the admission of the commission of an actual offence; while it is all very well the police officer saying that it does not really count as a conviction – which is correct – there may be more repercussions than you expect. The fact of the matter is that whatever may be said by a particular police officer on a particular occasion, cautions are recorded. This can become crucial when you look at it in the context of an application for a shotgun certificate or a firearms certificate, or indeed on a renewal.
My fear is that however easy the caution option may be and whatever may be said at the time, a caution may well rear its ugly head in connection with your firearms certificate application or renewal, providing the police with a reason to deny issuing a new certificate. My theory is that if the police think that they have sufficient material to launch a prosecution they should be made to do so, rather than being given the easy option of a carpet sweep in the form of a caution.
In this instance, when the relatively painless option of a caution was offered on several occasions, I have to say that my client was wavering. I make no apologies for saying that I had to lean on my client fairly hard in order to get him to accept my advice and not take this option, because the pressure from the police to accept a caution was considerable.
The point that the police missed was that shooting within 25 feet of the highway is not an offence per se. It is only an offence if coupled with the elements of injury, inconvenience or alarm: all of which were definitely missing in this particular case of mine.
When the matter eventually came to Court, the Crown Prosecution Service could not see what my actual defence was. I was equally bemused with them as to why they were carrying on with the prosecution, when it appeared to me that they had missed the fundamental elements of the legislation in question. Faced with a one day trial at considerable public expense, the District Judge questioned whether it was in the public interest to pursue the case, as taken at its highest the matter was trifling. Having had this gypsy’s warning from the Judge, the prosecution retired to consider their position. Eventually they offered no evidence. My client was awarded his defence costs from central funds and that, as they say, was that.
Despite this result, the Police were less than cooperative in returning my client’s firearms to him immediately. This incurred more time and effort until eventually I had to write and threaten them with an injunction unless the firearms were returned immediately. Thankfully, this did the trick and my client finally had his property returned and was able to put this sorry but most worrying episode behind him.
The moral of the story is that shooting is a legitimate sporting activity. Shooters engaged in their chosen pastime should not feel intimidated or indeed privileged to be able to pursue their sport without ill-informed interference. I cannot imagine that a horse rider or a golfer would take interference by the police with their particular sport lying down; bear in mind that, statistically speaking, horse riding, cricket and golfing activities record more accidents than shooting. My message to the shooting population therefore is that you should not allow yourself to feel intimidated or even apologetic when lawfully pursuing your sport.
I shall conclude by saying that, in my experience of Lincolnshire at any rate, the police usually adopt a sensible and practical approach towards shooting, as one would expect in a predominantly rural county. The heavy-handedness of some police forces is probably more of an exception rather than the rule. What I really advocate is a better understanding of both the practicalities of shooting and shooting law by police forces. All rural police officers must gain a basic understanding of the law and be willing to work with shooters rather than against them, for the goodness of all – not to mention the public purse. ν