The police and RSPCA put me through hell, says former animal sanctuary owner

Martin Evans
Stuart Ford, who used to run an animal sanctuary, has said his life has been ruined - Richard Lappas

The former owner of an animal sanctuary, who was wrongly accused of cruelty, has hit out at the RSPCA and police, for putting him through "seven years of hell".

Stuart Ford, 58, who founded the North Devon based, Society for the Protection and Re-homing of Animals (SPRA), received death threats and was forced to leave his home, after he was prosecuted for allegedly mistreating dogs in his care.

But when the case came to court he was cleared of all charges and awarded costs by a judge who described him as being of “good character”.

Now a misconduct investigation into the police's handling of the case, has concluded that officers relied too heavily upon the guidance of the RSPCA - which was recently warned by MPs to stop pursuing its own private prosecutions.

Mr Ford’s ordeal began in 2012 when and RSPCA inspector and a Devon and Cornwall police officer raided his home to investigate a complaint of animal cruelty.

It was subsequently determined that the warrant they had used to search Mr Ford’s property had been obtained unlawfully.

An independent vet, who accompanied the officers on the raid concluded none of the animals showed any sign of suffering and none were removed.

Despite this the investigation continued and Mr Ford was interviewed by an RSPCA inspector alongside the police - even though the charity has no statutory powers.

The police officer who led the flawed investigation has been disciplined but will receive no more than "management action", which amounts to a slap on the wrist.

Mr Ford has now accused the police of ruining his life and has warned that the RSPCA have become “a law unto themselves".

Stuart Ford was wrongly accused of animal cruelty Credit: Richard Lappas

He said: "It's been seven years of absolute hell. We have suffered physically, mentally and emotionally and our young daughter was frightened to death by the police and RSPCA raids.

"I don't trust the police and I have no faith in the British justice system. The RSPCA is a law unto themselves. They both deserve to be exposed and punished for the way they have behaved.

"They came, they looked around and found nothing. This has ruined our lives."

In 2016 a group of MPs recommended that the RSPCA ought to be stripped of its powers to prosecute cases of animal cruelty after a report accused the charity of targeting vulnerable, ill and elderly people.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, said there was a "conflict of interest" in the charity's role in bringing forward private prosecutions as well as investigating cases, campaigning and fundraising.

But even in cases investigated by the police and brought by the Crown Prosecution Service, the RSPCA has been accused of having too much influence.

Mr Ford's barrister, Sara-Lise Howe, said the criticisms of the police and the way it had relied too heavily on the RSPCA "ought to have far reaching implications".

She said: "It is another compelling example of how much influence the RSPCA continues to have over decisions to prosecute, which it has been repeatedly criticised for as being at odds with its campaigning role."

Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said: "The sad lesson of this case is that the police should be extremely careful of dragging the RSPCA into its investigations."

A spokesman for the RSPCA said: "This case was brought by the police, not the RSPCA, and was completely police-led. Our inspector looked into this case at the time and decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute and we were clear and open about this decision.

"The Police and CPS decided otherwise and we assisted the police where our advice was requested. We had absolutely no  influence on how the investigation and subsequent prosecution proceeded.

A police spokesperson said: "Devon and Cornwall Police have conducted a detailed investigation into the numerous allegations made by Mr Ford, and determined that some of the allegations made should be upheld.

"Mr Ford has exercised his right to appeal this decision and the matter is currently being considered by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).

"Until the IOPC has considered and made a determination on Mr Ford’s case, Devon and Cornwall are unable to comment further on the specific matters surrounding Mr Ford’s complaint."