The RSPCA is planning to stop prosecuting criminals as it heads towards its 200th anniversary.
Handing over the role to the Crown Prosecution Service, the charity will still investigate claims of animal cruelty and neglect.
Chief executive Chris Sherwood, who joined in 2018, said the charity is proud of its “history bringing animal abusers to justice” and how “for many years we have been the right people to do this vital work.”
But he said the “world has changed” adding that a rising trend in cases involving hardened criminal gangs, such as puppy farming, dog fighting and hare coursing, had placed a “huge responsibility” on the charity’s shoulders.
It comes part of a new 10 year strategy, which the charity said was required in order to focus on frontline rescue work. It is also seeking statutory powers under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
In 2019 the RSPCA, which was formed in 1824, secured nearly 1,500 convictions – a 94% success rate.
But it is now feared the number of convictions will severely drop, having a devastating effect on the welfare and suffering of thousands of animals in the future.
Cliff Harrison, 66, who worked at the charity for 30 years as an inspector until last October, said prosecuting was the DNA of RSPCA. He added transferring responsibility to the CPS would send out a signal to wildlife criminals that they are likely to get away with abuse.
“I fear it will be the end of the RSPCA as we know it,” he said. “The biggest pool of animal welfare prosecution talent in the world will be lost.
“For nearly 200 years that is what the RSPCA has been doing. It is what every decent minded member of the public wants to do.
“People support the society because unlike any other animal welfare charity, the RSPCA has always had the courage and tenacity to prosecute the worst cases of cruelty and bring the perpetrators into court, where they can be disqualified from keeping animals.
“To expect other agencies to have the resources, expertise and budget is madness.”
TV presenter Chris Packham and vice-president of the charity said the proposal concerned him saying: “The CPS have such a poor record prosecuting wildlife crime cases so devolving the responsibility to them doesn’t appear to be a great idea. And in the covid world, the courts are jammed with so many cases I fear wildlife crimes will again be at the bottom of their agenda.
“I’d like to see a return to the charity taking its own wildlife crime prosecutions and pushing them through forcefully. None of the other smaller charities has the clout or the cash to do this, so if the RSPCA won’t either, then we will have to find other means. If the law is broken, wildlife criminals must be prosecuted.”
But Edie Bowles, a solicitor for Advocates for Animals, a legal firm specialising in animal rights, added: “There have been concerns raised in the past about resources and expertise at the CPS so what will be key is the RSPCA working with them to ensure they have the necessary resource and expertise to prosecute the offences as successfully. If the CPS and RSPCA can give those assurances, then the transfer would be a positive development.”
RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood said: “Our inspectors would still be rescuing, investigating and collecting evidence of cruelty and abuse and seeking to hand this over to the CPS.
“We believe that there may be a better way to ensure animals get the justice they deserve by bringing together our expertise in investigations with the CPS’ skills and resources.
“By working more closely in partnership with them, we can free up resources to focus on our unique frontline investigation, rescue and care work, where we can make the most difference to animals.”