As concern mounts over the escalating cost of legal aid, hunt saboteurs have been accused of draining the Legal Aid Fund of hundreds of thousands of pounds a year to support them in hopeless cases.
The row centres on three pending personal injury claims mounted by hunt saboteurs against hunt followers. In each case the saboteurs are backed by legal aid.
Solicitors representing the British Field Sports Society say the fund is pouring substantial amounts into the defence of hunt saboteurs in criminal actions. And they say that saboteurs are increasingly obtaining civil legal aid to sue hunt followers for compensation for alleged personal injuries.
Michael McNally, partner at Tunbridge Wells firm Knights, which acts for the British Field Sport Society, said he was "alarmed" at the ease with which saboteurs manage to get and retain legal aid to pursue cases which invariably fail.
One such case is scheduled to begin at Peterborough County Court on 22 July. A leading hunting figure, 59-year-old Brian Fanshawe, retired master and huntsman of Leicestershire's Cottesmore Hunt, is being sued for allegedly riding down and deliberately trampling saboteur Martin Casbon, of Peterborough, in March 1992. Fanshawe was prosecuted over the incident but acquitted by a Lincoln Crown Court jury in June 1993.
The claim, according to McNally, is worth at the most only around £3,000 and the chances of it succeeding on the evidence are remote.
At least two other claims launched against hunt followers by saboteurs are currently in the pipeline and are also racking up substantial legal aid bills. McNally is acting for the defence in those as well. He estimated the total legal aid bill for the three is likely to be at least £100,000.
"What I find alarming is the way the Legal Aid Fund, having first granted legal aid certificates, has continued to fund the claims when faced with witness statements and other evidence indicating how thin the cases really are," said McNally.
"On the one hand great emphasis is being put on the need for careful use of legal aid funds...On the other hand we see legal aid being handed out in cases like these. It is a very worrying situation."