Some senior readers may perhaps remember my contributions to (the now long defunct) Stalking Magazine under the nom de plume of Mr. Fieldsports Solicitor.
In those days, with a busy commercial law practice, I was, as a consequence of the amount of time I spent shooting and stalking, dipping my toe into firearms law licensing.
After retiring from the practice of law, I formed ShootingLaw Ltd. as a specialist provider of advice in the regulatory firearms law field. In practice, this means the company mainly advises on Firearms Act applications and appeals. I and my colleague, Theresa Gibbs, now concentrate our efforts almost entirely on these, which we would be the first to admit is an extremely focused specialisation.
One aspect of this is that academic experts in this narrow field are hard to find, and it’s difficult to keep on improving our own knowledge and service: ‘professional development’ opportunities are hard to come by.
So it was with open arms that we welcomed the opportunity to attend MBL Seminars’ April firearms licensing event in London. We joined just ten other attendees, an indication of just how niche the subject is.
These were mostly solicitors in private practice, with a couple of police licensing department lawyers. The solicitors were no doubt accruing what they call ‘compulsory professional development’ points, and our impression was that most of them only occasionally encountered the Firearms Acts in the course of their practice, rather than as firearms law licensing specialists.
The seminar was presented by barrister Nick Doherty. A shooting man himself, he is a co-author of ‘The British Firearms Law Handbook’ a very readable book to which we make regular reference in the course of our advisory work. The seminar was presented in three sessions.
Session one summarised the basis of firearms law licensing. It touched on the different categories of firearms, as defined in sections 1, 2 and 5 of the Firearms Act 1968. It also went into the law relating to air rifles, which I have dealt with recently, and with ammunition.
Interesting as these finer points of firearms law may be, if such things float your boat, I have said before that they will rarely affect the gamekeeping profession, whose members are far more likely to own and use a Section 1 rifle or a Section 2 shotgun than a Section 5 machine gun, or a stun gun disguised as a mobile phone.
Only the briefest mention was made of the numerous criminal offences relating to firearms, which are much more likely to be encountered by today’s gamekeeper. These include such crimes as carrying weapons in a public place, trespassing with a firearm, trespassing with a weapon of offence and shooting on or near a highway.
The practical importance of these is such that I have ear-marked another article in which I will review these offences, in the hope that readers will feel better equipped to deal with poachers and trespassers if they have the law relating to this sort of offending at their fingertips.
Back in the seminar, there was then a useful reminder section on regulatory offences regarding firearms and shotgun certificates, including failure by the certificate holder to comply with any of the certificate conditions. This was pointed out by the barrister, and we at our company see it time and time again.
Although most of these regulatory offences are not serious in the general gamut of criminal offences, they may frequently lead to the revocation or non-renewal of the certificate. Examples of course include security conditions – which are the standard conditions 4(A) and 4(B) on the face of the certificates. Failure to notify the police of the theft or loss of firearms is another example. Notification by post is time sensitive, but a saving grace is that since 2010 the notification can be by e-mail.
The second section was devoted to the firearms licensing process. A good point at the start of this was highlighting the case of ‘Shephard’ in which a person considered unfit ‘to be entrusted with firearms’ was allowed to have a shotgun certificate because he was not a danger to the public. Five reasons entitling the police to refuse to grant or renew or to revoke a certificate were also set out.
There was then a section on the process of application for a firearms or shotgun certificate. In my experience, the care taken over and the quality of the application varies a great deal, and some applicants ought to take legal advice if they are, for whatever reason, incapable of making a decent, accurate job of it.
Areas of potential difficulty include the requirement for suitable referees, the disclosure of convictions, the ‘good reason’ requirement and the ‘approval of land’ issue in relation to firearms certificates, though that is not an exhaustive list.
The third session of the seminar contained some practical advice on such matters as the law relating to organising a clay shoot, borrowing shotguns and rifles on private premises, and for gun bearers.
There was then a sub-section on the main reasons for revocation or refusal to renew. A good point was made about the merits of early legal intervention for a person refused a certificate on grant or renewal – or for a revocation, as the case may be – where there is a problem before the police position becomes entrenched, which may avoid the expense and uncertainty of an appeal.
Where there is an appeal, this is to the Crown Court. The barrister went into the details of the procedure, such as it is, explaining that these appeals are curiosities in law, with a judge and two magistrates sitting to exercise an administrative function left over from the old quarter sessions.
For example, there are no specific rules as to progression and preparation of these cases, with wide variations in approach shown by different Crown Courts.
In the course of our practical consultancy work, this is just what we experience. One Crown Court will list the appeal for a full hearing, while another will list the case for the making of detailed directions and seek to impose timetables and penalties for late or non-compliance. On the full hearing of one of these appeals, the decision is at the discretion of the judge and his colleagues.
After one or two problems, it has been decided that these appeals should be heard by senior Crown Court judges rather than more junior judges, which are called recorders.
Finally, there was a brief mention of applications for the removal of prohibitions by persons who have previously been sentenced to youth detention or imprisonment – an area of work I sometimes undertake for ShootingLaw Ltd.
At the end of the day, we came away convinced we had met the bench mark of competence and expertise in this niche area of the law, and also with one or two sharp reminders that there is no room for complacency. In firearms law, no sooner does one aspect appear to be settled then along comes a new case or regulation causing the ground to shift alarmingly under the feet of the legal adviser.
David Barrington Barnes