Court of Appeal Hearing, London 2nd July

On July 2nd, the Court of Appeal heard the challenge to the decisions of Sir Ross Cranston in the High Court in July 2018 (Langton -v- The Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England). The Court sat between 10.30am and 4.10pm, with much of the proceedings (the morning and part of the afternoon) televised and now available on Youtube:

Links https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cF4Qc7a8p3U and (pm)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwwNRwj0cMQ

Unfortunately the sound quality from parts of the room was not too good at times, which is a shame for those wanting to listen and analyse the detail. The afternoon coverage cuts out at about 2.45pm; we do not know why. Unfortunately this means that the summing up is not recorded.

In this instance, two grounds of the case that the High Court decision of 2018 was incorrect were fully examined following some opening discussion over the scope of the Grounds (reasons for challenge).

Richard Turney opened with his arguments over why allowing supplementary badger culling (SBC) for 5 years after the completion of intensive culling is ‘ultra vires’, that is, beyond the provisions allowed for under Section 10 of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 (PBA)

One aspect of the issue relates to the fact that the effects of SBC are unknown and cannot be separated from other bTB control measures. They may, according to published science (Jenkins et al. 2010) make things worse. The inability to be able to tell whether SBC works or not was reinforced  in the reference material and in a recent letter from Defra to the claimant.

In front of Sir Ross Cranston in the High Court in 2018, Defra and the SSEFRA had used the claim that they would learn from the SBC results and adapt their policy accordingly to support their case. The arguments yesterday included whether the PBA allows ‘experimentation’, although SBC cannot even be regarded  as an experiment, since there can be no learning resulting from it. 

The judges have a fine line to tread in that under the current approval, SBC might only be claimed to have helped, and cease, if bTB goes down and is eradicated. However if it does not, (and the government scientist’s position is that it could take a very long time for success or failure to be indicated), it is not possible to be sure whether SBC is helping or holding things back. Under an experimental approach, if SBC is actually worsening the spread of the disease, you may not find out for decades or even ever.

We remember that in the 1960’s bTB was reduced by 80% in four years with thorough cattle measures. What we know of SBC from results in Gloucestershire in its first year is that there has been an increase in confirmed new herd breakdowns by 80%. Government claims that it is too early to be able to interpret the results of SBC and longer periods of implementation are needed; this is  not correct as there can never be certainty on causation with the current policy.

In approving the policy, the Minister may have overreached the powers of the PBA; there is a clear argument that this should only have been attempted under different legislation. Defra/SSEFRA argued that licensing doesn’t have to be definite in terms of outcome. But that didn’t seem to address the capacity of SBC to increase the spread of bTB disease on a country-wide basis, in a manner that it is impossible to detect.

The other part of the case argued yesterday concerned the way in which Natural England approaches its legal duties of assessment in terms of the negative impacts of badger culling on non-target species in internationally protected sites. Much of the evidence relied upon in this challenge arises out of forensic analyses of the detail of Natural England’s impact assessments by our Habitats Regulations expert Dominic Woodfield, who continues to work pro bono on the case.

The argument centres on the implications of a suite of recent European and domestic court cases, in particular an Irish case known as ‘People Over Wind’. In this case the European Courts ruled that mitigation measures, taken specifically to avoid or mitigate adverse effects that would otherwise be likely to occur to sites protected under the EC habitats and Birds Directives, cannot be taken into account by a decision maker when screening proposals for ‘likely significant effects’ – the first stage of what is called a ‘Habitats Regulations Assessment’.

In the challenge in the High Court in 2018, Sir Ross Cranston accepted NE’s argument that measures imposed as conditions on badger licences, in order to try and avoid impacts on sensitive species and sites, were not ‘mitigation measures’ because NE had invited applicants to incorporate them into their application and they were thus integral parts of the project.  This is an approach that contradicts the methodology NE requires to be followed in all other aspects of its duties under the Habitats and Birds Directives and it is telling that NE has very recently overhauled all of its Habitats Regulations Assessments for badger culling to try to correct this error.

The Court of Appeal’s decision on this aspect of the case has huge implications. If the Court of Appeal finds that Sir Ross Cranston’s decision was correct, it will put UK case law squarely at odds with that of all other EU countries bound by the Directive and will mean that Natural England’s approach to marking its own homework when it comes to badger licensing is open for wider adoption by developers and others as a means of avoiding the more stringent requirements of the Appropriate Assessment stage of Habitats Regulations Assessment. This will result in reduced protection to internationally important sites and have knock on implications for wildlife protection generally. On the other hand, if the Court of Appeal finds that Sir Ross Cranston’s decision to accept NE’s unusual definition of mitigation was wrong, it will confirm that NE’s authorisations for badger culling over vast areas of south-western and western England were unlawful, in both 2017 and 2018. 

The question now remains what relief could occur if the cases are successful. With SBC it will be all or nothing; supplementary culling will either be stopped or considered acceptable. With the Natural England licences, judgment in  favour of Mr Langton could see a number of licences quashed. This would both show the validity of the original challenges and  focus a  spotlight on how NE approached the 2019 licence applications.

We hope that judgment will be handed down before the end of July, but it is possible that it will be towards the end of August or even later. The courts were fair and open yesterday and we can only wait to see the verdicts. Huge thanks again to all those supporting the legal challenges and sending in messages of good wishes this week. It really is appreciated. Please keep encouraging donations as we are still short of funds. Huge thanks to the legal team and the contributing experts, advisors and researchers too.

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