The RSPCA and the Countryside Alliance clashed bitterly yesterday over the animal welfare charity's policy of pursuing prosecutions for illegal hunting.
An investigation by The Times reportedly found only four out of five RSPCA prosecutions for alleged illegal hunting were successful. As a result taxpayers had to foot legal bills for those that failed totalling at least £70,000, because defence costs in private prosecutions can be claimed against the public purse.
The findings led to the alliance, which is fighting to overturn the hunt ban, to allege that the RSPCA was guilty of an abuse of the courts for mounting politically motivated legal cases.
Tim Bonner, the alliance's director of campaigns said: "The Government needs to look urgently at the law to ensure private prosecutors think twice before bringing spurious prosecutions."
Specialist country sports lawyer Jamie Foster of Taunton-based Clarke Willmot represented one of the few defendants who pleaded guilty to illegal hunting. Huntsman David Parker, of the Seavington, in Somerset, admitted blowing his hunting horn, encouraging the hounds to pursue a fox, which escaped.
He was fined £500 with £500 costs despite the RSPCA requesting their full costs of close to £5,000 at the end of the case last September.
Mr Foster said it would have been more appropriate for the RSPCA to issue a caution, given no animal was harmed. "This was another example of a campaigning charity prioritising its own political interests in criminal proceedings," he said.
Perhaps the most high profile failed RSPCA hunting case involved the Avon Vale hunt in Wiltshire, where leading Conservative councillor and former hunt-master Jonathon Seed was brought to court for trial, only to be told the society was dropping the charges at the last minute.
The RSPCA hit back yesterday with a strongly worded denial that it was acting in any way improperly in taking hunts to court. Ray Goodfellow, the charity's chief legal officer, said: "The figures cited by the Countryside Alliance are disingenuous. It is a gross distortion to compare a percentage calculated on the number of summonses with a percentage calculated on the number of individual defendants successfully convicted.
"Obviously I reject the claim that our prosecutions are politically motivated. The RSPCA follows the principles laid down by the CPS Code for Crown Prosecutors. The alliance should engage with the independent review of RSPCA prosecutions if they have concerns about the manner in which the RSPCA brings private prosecutions."
Last year, in response to concerns, the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, wrote to the RSPCA suggesting it appoint a barrister to conduct a review of its policies. Stephen Wooler, a former chief inspector of HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, was appointed to carry out the review.