The recent High Court battle to outlaw livestock export bans in the UK resulted in a landmark law and order ruling. It was also, says one of the key players, Bruce Potter of Oxford solicitors Cole and Cole, a triumph of case organisation and co-operation between legal teams with a cast that read like a lawyers' 'Who's Who'.
Potter views the action as a blueprint for future actions involving large numbers of parties with similar but not identical interests.
He also believes this litigation makes a strong case for stricter time limitation on interveners and for particular groups to be given the role of standard interveners for actions centring on specific areas. And he says it brought home the valuable role trade organisations – in this case the NFU – can play in providing vital background information.
The judgement of Lord Justice Simon Brown and Mr Justice Popplewell on 13 April had little to do with animal rights. It was one of the most robust law and order judgments given by the courts in years and its implications stretch far beyond the immediate issues of livestock exports. It gave firm guidance on how far authorities can bow to mob rule.
It came in a combined action involving moves to overturn bans on live animal exports at the port of Dover and Coventry Airport and a reverse move by Plymouth City Council to introduce a ban at the port of Plymouth. The court left no doubt that fear of mass demonstrations was not justification to impose bans on lawful activity.
In a complex 58-page written judgment, Lord Justice Simon Brown said the effects of the ban had been "devastating" for farmers. He said that though many may find it immoral, export of live animals for slaughter was lawful. Stressing that animal welfare considerations did not form part of the case, he said: "Tempting though it may sometimes be for public authorities to yield too readily to threats of disruption, they must expect the courts to review any such decision with particular rigour." The case "brought little credit" on those authorities as none appeared to have given thought to the "awesome implications" on the rule of law or to have considered the interests of those whose livelihood depends upon the trade.
Potter and his team, assistant Carolyn Fyall and litigation specialist Stephanie Walls, were instructed on 5 January by key applicants Somerset-based associated companies Peter Gilder and Sons and Russanglia which challenged the Dover ban. In addition to getting his own action up and running, Potter also needed to liaise with those challenging the Coventry and Plymouth moves.
"There are difficulties in running separate actions together in this way, even when they centre on similar issues, particularly if different cases are being used to illustrate different aspects of the problem," he says. "You have to achieve good co-operation between the parties and between counsel to work out how they can best be presented. This was vital in this case. The importance skeleton arguments played in this action cannot be too highly emphasised. If you are going to run a case in the way this one was run, skeletons come fully into their own.
"Another aspect was the question of interveners and the extent to which political cases are now attracting such large numbers of interveners. I believe we shall see an increasing tendency to limit the time interveners can have. Second, where there are emerging interest groups, I think we may see them becoming recognised as near standard interveners.
"These cases show there may come a time when there has to be a limit on the number of interested parties and time limits if judicial review is to remain the swift weapon it was set up to be."