Many local businesses within the South West are engaged in the business of farming and as such are regulated by a number of public authorities including Public Protection, Animal Health, Trading Standards and their various guises.
Most businesses are lucky enough never to be subject to investigation or inspection, or even prosecution, but Katherine Flashman Kitson, Director of Litigation at Parnalls Solicitors has written this article to help if this situation occurs, in order to help you protect your position.
Initial contact with these departments can happen in a number of ways. It may be civilised. Someone may telephone you, they may write to you. However, it is often the case that you may get an unannounced “visit”. This is when they turn up with no warning at your farm or premises saying they want to inspect. In many situations they are entitled to do so and there is not a lot you can do to stop them. However, be aware however of why they are there.
A complaint or report will have been made, for some reason, they will have been alerted to potential problems and they want to investigate them with a view to ascertaining whether there are breaches of the relevant legal provisions and whether they need to take action against you, including formal prosecution. They are effectively a regulatory authority and could become your opponents in a formal prosecution.
Firstly, you have to ensure that you are available to go around your property with them for the whole time they are there. If that is not possible because of pre-arranged commitments or your livestock’s needs, then clearly state to the officers there that it is not a good time and you would like to postpone it to a more convenient time, when you can go around with them. It is important that you accompany them on their inspection, preferably with another person who can be witness of what is done and said.
You will also need to contact your vet urgently and get someone from the surgery to come around and accompany you and the officers on the visit. It doesn’t have to be your usual vet, it could be any vet from the surgery. This is really important. If no one from the surgery can attend then state clearly to the officers, I would like to postpone this visit until someone from my veterinary surgery can attend. They may question this and ask why you need that. State clearly and openly that you want your own vet there during the visit as an independent witness of any matters that are raised. State clearly that this is reasonable. Make sure your statement in this regard is recorded.
Be guarded in your contact with them. Do not give any information you do not have to. You will not know what information you do have to give. Do not give information freely, or at the very least think carefully about whether you should and whether it would help you, before you do so.
During the inspection, make sure that you take photographs and videos of exactly the same things they do. If you have taken contemporaneous evidence you will be able to present that to the Court in the event of a prosecution and give your own explanation of the facts. If you do not do that at the time then there will be no contemporaneous evidence to challenge what the public authority says.
As stated above, it is best to get a vet to attend the inspection with you and the officers, but if for whatever reason you cannot then get any animal whose welfare/health is questioned, to a vet as soon as possible after the inspection, get it examined and get some evidence about it. Again, this will serve as contemporaneous evidence of the state of the animal at the time it was inspected. There is no point in doing this two months later when you get served with a summons as it is too late then.
Contact your lawyer for urgent advice. At this stage one hopes you have a lawyer and one hopes you have a good lawyer who will recognise the urgency of your contact and be able to advise you quickly and effectively. Its at times like this that having a good lawyer with whom you have a good relationship and in whom you have trust and confidence, really counts.
You may be thinking to yourself why do I need a lawyer now, I am not actually being prosecuted? Getting legal advice at an early stage and protecting yourself and spending a modest amount of money on that legal advice at that time could ultimately save you from being prosecuted at all or minimise the effects if you are. In other words invest early to try to save time, stress and more money later.
You do not have to answer questions from a public authority at this early stage. If you are going to answer questions from them that could be in a formal interview later on when you have legal advice or via correspondence. A lot of people feel bamboozled in this situation and pressured into giving a lot of information. Be guarded. You will not necessarily as a lay person be able to judge what information will help you and what will harm you. It is therefore a perilous situation to speak freely to public authorities at this stage. Seek legal advice.
If you receive correspondence from the public authority after your visit then don’t reply again without getting legal advice on how best to reply or indeed if to reply at all. You are not under any legal obligation to other than in certain limited situations.
If you are invited for interview also seek legal advice. A good lawyer will advise you whether you need legal representation and/or if you should attend for interview at all as the matter could be dealt with in other ways that protect your position better.
This article is not intended to be an exhaustive advice on every contact you may have with a public authority but it is intended to reinforce this. Be guarded in your communications with public authorities. Do not answer their questions freely or give them information without careful consideration. Get legal advice at an early stage. Make sure you have a good lawyer who will react quickly and effectively to any crisis situation you find yourself involved in with a public authority. A good lawyer’s priority is to help you avoid prosecution in the first place, but they can only have the best chance of doing that if they are involved at the earliest possible stage.
If the lawyer is not involved until a later stage, damage will already be done, which the lawyer may not be able to rectify.
Should you require legal advice related to these matters, please contact Katherine Flashman Kitson on 01566 772375 or email firstname.lastname@example.org