In every case, be it writing a veterinary expert report on the scientific interpretation of laboratory data or standing up in court acting as an expert witness on behalf of the court, I find that I am learning more about the subject than I have from reference books.
This article is intended to help general practitioners who are involved in forensic matters benefit from examples of what can happen afterwards.
Animal Welfare Act 2006
A large number of welfare investigations are carried out under the provisions of this Act. A very important part of the practical enforcement of issues affecting the welfare of animals is the ability to remove them from the environment in which suffering is being caused or likely to be caused.
Section 18 of the Act defines the powers available to (properly appointed) inspectors and (police) officers. Note that an “inspector”, for the purposes of this Act, and defined in section 51 of the Act, is currently likely to be a state veterinary service inspector or an inspector authorised by a local authority.
A welfare worker, for example someone employed by the RSPCA, PDSA or RSPB, is not considered to be an inspector under the provisions of this Act and therefore must rely on an officer or an inspector to exercise various powers, such as set out in section 18 of the Act, legally. These workers have no powers of entry onto premises such as homes, gardens and farms.
The relevant part of section 18, powers in relation to animals in distress, is subsection 5: “An inspector or a constable may take a protected animal into possession if a veterinary surgeon certifies— (a) that it is suffering, or (b) that it is likely to suffer if its circumstances do not change.”
If you, a veterinary surgeon, are aiding an animal welfare worker or other inspector or officer in a case involving the welfare of animals, you may be asked to complete a section 18(5) certificate under the Act. This procedure is very important; it will allow the inspector or officer (but not the welfare worker) to take into possession (seize from the owner or keeper) the animal whose welfare you consider to be compromised. The officer or inspector will, usually, immediately pass that animal into the care of the welfare worker. It is often the case that you will be asked to carry out a forensic clinical examination of the animal so you can fully document its state of health.
The s18(5) certificate is often saved on a practice management system as a blank pro forma or you may be presented with a blank form at the scene. Figure 1 shows an example that is, in my experience, typical of the completed certificates issued by veterinary surgeons and used in court as evidence supporting a criminal investigation and prosecution.
A very important part of the practical enforcement of issues affecting the welfare of animals is the ability to remove them from the environment in which suffering is being caused or likely to be caused
The RCVS produces some very comprehensive guidelines in its Code of Professional Conduct. Chapter 21 – “Certification” – details the 10 Principles of Certification as well as paragraphs with commentary and advice (eg 21.3).
21.3 includes the statement “The simple act of signing their names on documents should be approached with care and accuracy” and 21.5 details “Veterinarians should also familiarise themselves with the form of certificate they are being asked to sign and any accompanying Notes for Guidance, instructions or advice from the relevant Competent Authority.”
In my opinion, Figure 1 shows a number of obvious deviations from the RCVS certificate requirements. The list of deviations I have compiled is probably not complete (I do not believe that I have seen everything yet), but I offer it here as an indication of what is actually done. I have provided my commentary as to why I think there are problems with relying on this certificate in the forensic arena and have given advice on how to avoid criticism.
Deviations in Figure 1 from RCVS guidelines
“Print Name” and “Signed” transposed
21.3 not satisfied. I know this is picky and obvious, but it may be seen by others as indicating a lack of attention to detail by the veterinarian responsible, which may be reflected in other parts of the certificate (as was the case in this example). If your errors lead to you being challenged in court, not only are you going to be embarrassed but it may not reflect well on the profession.
The certificate describes “puppies in a cage”, however, their exhibit numbers are not properly listed. Is it four puppies: “AF-1” and “2” and “3” and “4”; or five: “AF” and “1” and “2” and “3” and “4”; or four: “AF-1” and “AF-2” etc? This is contrary to principle 10. Certificates should clearly identify the subject being certified. There are four sections on this pro forma so why was each exhibit (puppy) not given its own, unique entry? If there were more than four individuals then a second certificate should have been prepared.
The number of puppies is not defined (and there is not enough certainty regarding the exhibit numbers to be certain of that number). Each of the puppies is not identified in sufficient detail to enable the individual to be “clearly identifiable” (unique markings, microchip, colour, sex, etc) – contrary to principle 10. The use of hospital collars (temporary plastic collars on which identification marks may be written in indelible pen) is commonplace, cheap and very reliable. If all the puppies were very similar and no alternatives available, then simply marking each with a felt pen or nail varnish (mark on the left ear = AF-1, on right ear = AF-2, etc) would suffice. The certificate clearly alludes to the singular “animal” for each part of the document, ie “The animal is likely…”, so, to lump many individuals together is not consistent with the format of the certificate. The effort required to detail each individual into a separate part of a certificate and follow its format is part of the discipline required of you.
Parts of the certificate left incomplete
This is contrary to principle 6. A simple score-through of the blanks would have prevented this criticism.
No mention of the subsection of section 18
It is not noted to which subsection the certificate applies (the certificate may be used for subsection 3 or 5). If the document was intended to be an s18(5) certificate, then that should have been indicated.
No copy made of the certificate
This is contrary to principles 1 and 8. I have not yet been aware of a single veterinary surgeon copying certificates such as this for their own records. Certainly, copies are made (usually by the prosecuting agency), however, the originals invariably are issued at the scene without this requirement having been met. Most mobile phones can take photographs, which can be printed later, and there are many apps (some free) which will produce PDF files of photographic images taken on mobiles.
Address of issuing veterinarian missing
This is contrary to principle 6. Again, I have yet to see a single s18(5) certificate with such information included. Even if you have not brought your practice stamp with you, you should add the practice details in longhand as you may not be the only “J Smith MRCVS” in the UK that day.
Certificate completed and signed in black ink
This is contrary to principle 6. Make sure you have a pen of any colour other than black to hand when completing these certificates.
No unique certificate identifier
This is contrary to principle 8. The certificate itself is an item of evidence and should be given a unique identifier (which, if necessary, could then be associated with an exhibit number or may even be an exhibit in its own right) by you. Your initials and a number will do, but be sure to record the identification in your contemporaneous notes.
Circumstances of issuing of a certificate
I have compiled a few points from my experiences in court regarding these certificates. I am not legally trained or qualified, so my comments here are “for information only” and must be verified by a legal professional if their content is intended to be relied upon.
Firstly, if you intend to issue an s18(5) certificate, you must issue it as a signed paper document, completed properly, to the officer or inspector before they try to take possession of the animals to which the certificate applies. It is not sufficient to issue a “verbal” certificate, eg “Yes officer, I do believe that the puppies in that cage are likely to suffer if their circumstances do not change, pursuant to s18(5) of the AWA 2006.”
If the officer or inspector relies on your verbal statement (even if you prepare a written certificate later and provide it after the fact), it may be argued in court that the seizure was unlawful and that the evidence obtained as a result should be excluded from the hearing. This could jeopardise the hard work, time, effort and money expended in collecting that evidence.
Try to do as much homework as possible before undertaking welfare cases. You are the professional and you owe it to everyone concerned to be aware of the rules and responsibilities that forensic work may demand. Familiarise yourself with the relevant parts of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and its accompanying documents. Find out if you have the correct paperwork, make sure you have appropriate equipment (including a blue biro) and the “visit kit”.
If you are in doubt as how to proceed, stop. Ask for help and advice; organisations such as the RCVS, BVA, BSAVA and VDS are all there to help and are the best placed to do so. Do not be pressurised into doing something that you are not comfortable with.
Finally, examine the animal. The 1st Principle of Certification states that “A veterinarian should certify only those matters which: … b) can be ascertained by him or her personally; …”. Whether or not you think it is necessary to state the obvious, it will be much better received by a court if you could say that you turned up at an animal welfare crime scene with, at least, a stethoscope and thermometer, and could document that you used them.