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Certifying Time in Criminal Proceedings

May 3rd, 2012 by Louise Humphreys

Posted In: Litigation

A recent appeal decision has clarified the position with regard to the certification of time in criminal proceedings and also highlighted the need for all prosecutors to take great care when certifying a date under statutory provisions which have the effect of extending the time limit for bringing criminal proceedings.

In Lamont-Perkins v RSPCA [2012] EWHC 1002 (Admin) the appellant brought an appeal by way of case stated against two rulings made by Gloucester Crown Court. Each ruling was made in the context of an appeal to the Crown Court brought by the Appellant against her convictions in the Magistrates Court for offences of causing unnecessary suffering to a number of dogs contrary to section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

The relevant facts of the case were that on or about 13 August 2007 the Respondent received a complaint about the welfare of a number of dogs which were owned by the Appellant. On 22 August 2007 one of the Respondent's inspectors attended Stroud Police Station and asked the police to obtain a search warrant in respect of the Appellant's premises. The next day a warrant was obtained and executed. Police officers, at least one of the Respondent's inspectors and a vet attended at the Appellant's premises. Following a search a number of dogs were seized and taken into the Respondent's care. From the outset the Appellant accepted that she was the owner of the dogs seized and responsible for their care. On 4 September 2007 the Appellant was interviewed under caution by one of the Respondent's Inspectors. At the conclusion of the interview the Inspector informed the Appellant that she would be reported to the Respondent's headquarters with a view to a possible prosecution. A number of months went by without any obvious sign of progress towards a prosecution. However the Respondent stated that on 8 January 2008 a conversation took place between its officers about the case. A prosecution case manager told the investigator that there was sufficient evidence available to prosecute the Appellant but that it would be prepared to administer a caution if the Appellant consented. That same day the investigator emailed the Appellant to convey to her the substance of that conversation. The email informed the Appellant that the Respondent would be prepared to administer a caution provided she was prepared to give up the dogs which the Respondent had seized. The Appellant has not disclosed what, if anything, she said in reply. On 18 March 2008 further communication ensued between the investigator and the prosecution case managed Ultimately, a letter dated 17 April 2008 was sent to the Clerk to the Gloucester Justices as follows:-

Re: RSPCA v Margaret Lamont-Perkins Cedar Lodge, Avening, Tetbury, Gloucestershire.
For the purposes of section 31(2) of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 I hereby certify the date on which evidence came to the Prosecutor's knowledge, such that the Prosecutor thinks it is sufficient to justify criminal proceedings against the above-named, was 18 March 2008.

The letter was received at the Magistrates' Court on 24 April 2008. On or about the same date the Respondent sought to initiate proceedings against the Appellant; an information was laid and a summons was issued against the Appellant. On 11 February 2009 the Justices sitting at Colefield convicted the Appellant of five offences contrary to section 4 of the 2006 Act. The justices concluded that the Appellant had caused unnecessary suffering to a number of dogs during the period between 6 April 2007 and 23 August 2007.

The appeal turned upon the interplay between section 127 Magistrates' Court Act 1980 and section 31 Animal Welfare Act 2006.

Section 127(1) Magistrates' Court Act 1980 states that:

Except as otherwise expressly provided by any enactment and subject to sub-section (2) below, a Magistrates' Court shall not try an information or hear a complaint unless the information was laid, or the complaint made, within 6 months from the time when the offence was committed, or the matter of complaint arose.

Section 31(1) Animal Welfare Act 2006 states:

Notwithstanding anything in section 127(1) of the Magistrates' Court Act 1980 a Magistrates' Court may try an information relating to an offence under this Act if the information is laid -
  1. before the end of the period of three years beginning with the date of the commission of the offence, and
  2. before the end of the period of six months beginning with the date on which evidence which the prosecutor thinks is sufficient to justify the proceedings comes to his knowledge.

Section 31(2) adds that

For the purposes of sub-section 1(b) -
  1. a certificate signed by or on behalf of the prosecutor and stating the date on which such evidence came to his knowledge shall be conclusive evidence of that fact, and
  2. a certificate stating that matter and purporting to be so signed shall be treated as so signed unless the contrary is proved.

The questions posed for the opinion of the court were as follows:

  1. What is the proper construction of the words "the prosecutor" in section 31 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006?
  2. Do these words refer to the legal person who has laid the information that is before the court and therefore include private prosecutors such as the RSPCA? Or are they limited to prosecutors who prosecute pursuant to a power conferred by statute?"
  3. Where there is a challenge to the certificate issued pursuant to section 31 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, on the ground that the certificate is (innocently) inaccurate on its face/plainly wrong, what is the proper method of bringing such a challenge?
  4. Is it an abuse of process argument that falls to be decided outside the trial process? Or is it a challenge that can and should be mounted as part and parcel of the trial process, with a challenge being ruled upon at close of the prosecution case?

On the first two issues the appellant sought to argue that the RSPCA was not a prosecutor within the meaning of section 31(1) of the Animal Welfare Act as the word must be interpreted to mean a body which is authorised by some statute to initiate prosecutions. The appellant argued that the phrase did not include a private person or organisation (such as the RSPCA) which initiates a private prosecution.

The judge concluded that the phrase "the prosecutor" in section 31 of the 2006 Act is not limited to prosecutors who prosecute pursuant to a power conferred by some statutory provision but applies to anyone who initiates a prosecution under the Act.

On the third and fourth issues, the appellant sought to argue that the date specified in the RSPCA's certificate was wrong and that an earlier date was appropriate such that the bringing of the proceedings was time barred.

The judge concluded that any challenge to a certificate should be brought as a challenge to the jurisdiction of the court to hear the criminal proceedings (i.e. an abuse of process argument which should normally be taken as a preliminary point. Ultimately, however, it would be for the magistrates to determine in any particular case what procedure should be adopted in order to determine whether or not the court has jurisdiction to hear the summons in question.

On the specific facts of the case, whilst the judge agreed that the date specified in the RSPCA's certificate may have been wrong, evidence being adduced to suggest that the date was 8 January 2008 rather than March. However, even if the date in the certificate was wrong the judge concluded that a court would still have to investigate whether the proceedings were brought "out of time". Undertaking that exercise, and applying the 8 January 2008 date, the proceedings were brought within time and therefore the verdict was upheld.

The concluding remarks of the Court are worthy of recitation

This case has highlighted the need for all prosecutors to take great care when certifying a date under statutory provisions which have the effect of extending the time limit for bringing criminal proceedings. A prosecutor is exercising a crucial function when certifying such a date and it is incumbent upon the prosecutor to ensure the accuracy of the date.