Red in tooth and law

Are the Government’s latest laws a serious attempt to protect workers from animal extremists, or just another erosion of human rights? Jon Robins investigates

The Lawyer’s meeting with Tim Lawson-Cruttenden, the solicitor-advocate who acts for the controversial drug-testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences, as well as a number of other companies connected to animal experimentation, is briefly delayed when a recently installed and overly enthusiastic security system prevents entry. Once the keys are found and the system is disarmed, we move inside Lawson-Cruttenden’s Gray’s Inn offices. An assistant checks identification and the proprietor’s dog, Arthur, gives us a cursory once-over from his blanket in reception.

Understandably, Lawson-Cruttenden, a leading expert in the use of harassment laws against the more extreme elements of the animal rights movement, is taking no chances. Earlier this year, he was visited by the Special Branch and advised that he was on the extremists’ hit list and should take precautions. Activists had placed his name and address, together with that of his father and brother, alongside the details of judges and their relatives on a website as part of their ever-widening war on vivisection and its perceived defenders. Since last October, his practice, Lawson-Cruttenden & Co, has been subjected to a campaign consisting of “silent telephone calls”, email blockades and broken windows. There has also been hate mail and threats to expose alleged lurid details about his past.

Even so, it appears he might be taking security measures to rather unnecessary extremes when the interview is conducted in the firm’s ironically-named Garden Room, underneath a huge camouflage net which covers the subterranean bunker on the lower ground floor. However, the lawyer explains that the camouflage is a memento from his army days. He was in the Territorial Army for 22 years, where he commanded an armoured car squadron. As a legacy of those days, he also has a sizeable courts martial practice.

What does Lawson-Cruttenden make of recent ministerial proposals to deal with the menace of animal rights activists? He is not impressed. “Let’s not just shore up a hole here and a hole there in the law. When a ship’s in difficulties there needs to be a major rethink rather than just mending a couple of holes and sending it across the ocean,” he says. In fact, given the lawyer’s own experience in the area, he is a bit miffed that he has not been consulted. He has been advising businesses that have been targeted by animal rights activists for the last seven years and since last April has successfully applied for 13 injunctions under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997. He is presently acting for 15 companies, including Huntingdon, Bayer and a consortium of seven Japanese companies. “I’ve probably spent over the last year 10 hours a day, six days a week thinking about nothing but animal rights,” he says.

His view is that a piecemeal criminal law response has so far delivered “a pretty pathetic response” and is unlikely to make much progress. In the last year he reckons there have been eight or nine convictions. Most of them resulted in activists being discharged. “In my opinion, the burden of proof under the criminal law militates against dealing with campaigners,” he argues. He points to the new National Extremism Tactical Co-ordinating Unit, which he says has “a derisory budget”, the chaos over the inconsistent application of data protection laws throughout the 43 police forces and the continuing success of extremists to hide behind “the anonymity and absence of legal personality” of campaigning groups.

Certainly, the proposals fall some way short of industry demands for a new act to deal with the extremists. Mark Matfield, executive director of the Research Defence Society, believes they are a “good start”, but that the organisers of campaigns need to be targeted.

“They’re finding this information and putting it up on websites, and that’s not a crime,” he says. “The first thing to do is to make it a criminal offence to organise and fund a campaign of harassment.”

Companies involved in research and development (R&D) estimate that £70m a year is spent on protecting their properties and staff.

Are the new laws effective?

The plans, as announced at the end of last month by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Patricia Hewitt and Home Office minister Caroline Flint, will target “the illegal activists who harass, threaten or physically attack those involved in vital, life-saving scientific research”. In particular, the changes will give the police powers to arrest individuals protesting outside someone’s home; increase their powers to ban protestors from the vicinity of a person’s home for three months; and harassment laws to deal with campaigns aimed at a group of people working for the same company.

Speaking on the day that ministers publish their plans, Lawson-Cruttenden reports that he has already received his first significant instruction from one company, which is clearly sceptical.

So what do the campaigners make of the Government’s efforts? “It won’t make the slightest difference to us,” reckons Greg Avery, a spokesman for Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), which is campaigning to close down Huntingdon Life Sciences. “We haven’t held demonstrations for the last two or three years now. What happens now is all that kind of stuff is done by the Animal Liberation Front. Instead of people holding placards outside people’s houses, these companies have forced big sections of the movement underground and people are now turning up at two o’clock in the morning and paint-stripping their cars.”

Avery is fond of comparing the animal rights movement to the campaign against apartheid. “The South African government took to shooting people dead in the street by their thousands. It didn’t stop anything,” he says. “People were imprisoned for not paying their poll tax and it didn’t stop them campaigning,” he says. “Becoming ever more draconian never stops anything. It just inflames the situation and drives it underground.”

Lawyers are somewhat bemused by the Government’s plans. Civil libertarians are unsurprisingly alarmed. “These new offences could be used against peace protesters or those opposed to foxhunting,” a spokesman says.

Ian Glen QC of Guildhall Chambers in Bristol has prosecuted a number of animal rights extremists, including Barry Horne, who died in 2001 while on hunger strike in protest at experiments on animals. He was serving 18 years for a firebombing campaign. “I don’t think that the laws have been found wanting when [these people] conspire to cause damage through arson or violence or they burgle,” the silk says. He believes that there are only a very small number of fanatics who, like Horne, “value animal life before human life”. But the silk supports the Attorney-General marking out animal rights extremism as an area worthy of special attention. “It’s going to be a dreadful life for people to have to carry on their professions knowing that their lives are under threat,” he adds.

Rubbing salt in the wound?

Avery, who was imprisoned for his animal rights activities in 2002 for inciting a public nuisance, argues that an increasingly hard-line approach, both by the Government through the latest proposals and by the courts through their readiness to grant injunctions, only inflames an increasingly acrimonious debate by denying campaigners their rights to legitimate protest. He denies that SHAC is a legitimate front for extremists. The group operates legally, he insists, adding that three barristers and one “well-known QC” are instructed to go through their operations to make sure that they stay on the right side of the law. Avery, though, has little sympathy for those individuals that have been targeted by campaigns. “They’ve made their beds and now it’s time to lie in them, and they’re all whining,” he says.

Mel Broughton, a spokesman for Speak, which was set up to oppose a new laboratory at Oxford University, also reckons that the new measures will have few implications for their campaign. “We conduct a totally legal campaign and we have encouraged people to write to companies and also demonstrate at their offices, but that’s where we’ve drawn our line,” he says. He argues that there is more than enough legislation that already restricts numbers, times and locations of their demonstrations. As well as injunctions granted under the anti-harassment legislation, there are also special exclusion zones whereby protests are curtailed or barred around factory and office premises and staff homes. Zones range from 50 yards to several miles. “What’s proposed here isn’t to do with controlling animal rights demos,” he says. “It’s about protecting the pharmaceutical industry from criticism and working on behalf of the industry. They’re trying to stifle the debate completely.”

Tim Green, a solicitor who has advised SHAC on and off for the last few years, is also dismissive of the Government’s plans. “It’s just passing a law for the sake of passing a law, something the Home Office is very keen on,” says the solicitor, who used to be at civil liberties firm Birnberg Pierce & Partners and is now a consultant for London firm Birds. “I can’t imagine it will have the slightest effect on the level of protest or the sort of protest that goes on.” He does not believe that SHAC is a front for darker forces. “The reason that they aren’t being prosecuted is because there’s no evidence they’re doing anything of that nature,” he adds.

Green reckons that the use of injunctions against campaigners has had two effects: driving those who were on the edges of illegal behaviour further into criminality; and making those companies that have not sought, or are not “rich enough”, to get injunctions more of a priority.

Campaigners argue that the recent spate of injunctions is a misuse of the anti-harassment legislation, which they say was clearly intended to protect individuals and not groups of people or companies. The act can only be used to protect more than one individual where it can be demonstrated that the victims are part of a “close but definable group” and harassment against one could count as harassment against the others. Ministers now plan to close that loophole and Green reckons that the injunctions are being used to shut up lawful protests. “The width of the injunctions being granted is huge and prevents perfectly lawful non-harassing protest,” he says.

Ministers’ attempts to outlaw protests are “years behind” and the animal rights movement is very “flexible”, reckons Avery. The current Home Office reforms appear to be as much a response to the City and its concerns about inward investment as outrage at the clandestine activities of balaclava-wearing extremists putting explosives under cars. The SHAC campaign has also refocused, putting pressure on companies that are connected to animal experimentation. Avery speculates that Marks & Spencer, which sub-contracts its logistics to industrial gases group BOC, would disassociate itself from the company (a supplier of gases to Huntingdon Life Sciences) rather than risk damaging its reputation.

And so pressure is put on companies further down the supply chain. Lawson-Cruttenden believes that ministers are missing the point by focusing on the criminal law. He believes they ought to re-examine civil law solutions. “It’s illegal to damage a business under the tort of conspiracy to interfere with a lawful business,” he argues. The likes of SHAC are already in breach of that because, he believes, their “primary aim” is “to secure the failure of Huntingdon, and that is a lawful company”. He adds: “The entire campaign is unlawful, but it’s contrary to civil law, not criminal law.”

So how does Lawson-Cruttenden feel about being targeted himself? It is pretty clear that the solicitor-advocate is an animal lover – his dog Arthur, a lurcher, goes everywhere with him, even to court (where he stays in the robing room), and he has strong feelings about dog owners who abandon their pets. “I passionately believe in a liberal democracy where you can’t surrender to bullies,” he says. “The inability of the courts to deal with animal rights extremism bodes badly for our democracy.”

Animal crackdown
The new proposals are:
  • To make it an offence for a person to be outside a home for the purpose of representing to, or persuading, the resident, or anyone else, that they should not do something they are entitled to do, or that they should do something they are not obliged to do and causing harassment, alarm or distress to the resident.
  • To make it an offence for a person subject to a direction to return to the vicinity of the premises within three months for the purposes of representing to, or persuading, the resident or another that they should not do something they are entitled to do, or that they should do something they are not obliged to do (by amending the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, Section 42 (7)).
  • Extending the Protection From Harassment Act 1997 to cover harassment of two or more people who are connected (eg employees of the same company) even if each individual is harassed on only one occasion.