I was 16 years qualified, with 8 years of full-time equine work and a further 6 years of part time and locum equine work under my belt. I was doing some intermittent weekend on call cover for a local practice to top up the bank balance. It was a sunny Saturday in a hot, dry summer and I was just enjoying the end of the ladies Wimbledon final when the phone went - would I accept a call from the RSPCA to visit multiple thin, dehydrated horses and 1 dead?
Do I have a choice?! I’m on call and you’ve rung me?!
Checked with the second on call vet and the senior partner that the practice was OK with this and agreed, asking if IV fluids or anything in particular would be required- ‘just a nurse or another pair of hands- there’s no-one to hold them’ was the reply. I consoled myself with the thought that it was probably a field of TB types that were a bit lean in their summer coats and the concerned member of the public and RSPCA officer were just so used to seeing fat cobs they’d forgotten what ‘normal’ should be. The dead one...yeah, bit harder to explain away, but maybe an acute colic, or some other random, individual catastrophic event…
On the advice of the senior partner I dropped into the practice and my colleague and I loaded up with microchips, BEVA vetting worksheets, blood tubes, pens and sample bags and we set out to locate a random “footpath near a gateway”.
On arrival there were horses out in a bare paddock, with some pretty ropey fencing that we climbed under- the main gate was locked and fortress like. We had permission, but the owner had yet to arrive. They were thin, but not horrific- I’d seen worse- and I began to relax, thinking my initial gut reaction had been correct. I was in for a shock.
These weren’t the bad ones- I was informed, and we walked over to some stables. There was a very thin, emaciated mare, with a stunted, very thin foal at foot, in a squelching bed of manure. There was one emaciated stallion with a persistently prolapsed penis- musculature too weak to withdraw it, another incredibly thin gelding, and still we were told this wasn’t the worst. A barn contained the thinnest horse I have ever seen. A lesson in skeletal anatomy, housed with a skeletally thin dead gelding, a colt and a filly, both incredibly thin.
But I skip ahead, as we didn’t get to the ‘delights’ of the barn until darkness was falling. This started a harrowing evening of careful examination, mental anguish, horror, desperate clinging on to a professional façade of calmness, control and confidentiality, and above all an over-riding need to maintain complete, traceable records - labelling blood tubes, making sure all the horses and samples were IDed as well as I possibly could.
I’m not going to go into details of what I and my colleague saw and felt examining those horses that night. Suffice to say it haunted both of us for a long time, and I sincerely hope I never to have the ‘luck’ of having another welfare case like that again. That night, we only managed to examine about half of the horses; we stopped at midnight, we were both done, as was the RSPCA inspector. The remaining horses were outside and, in the pitch dark, catching them, let alone examining them would have been a step too far.
When we called it a day, we had some youngsters in a barn with another one dead. There was nowhere safe to move them to on the premises and the live gelding, in particular, was emaciated- I had never before seen a horse with a BCS of 0/5, I hope never to again. We moved them to a different yard for short term housing. They were loaded up in a lorry (loose- we hadn’t headcollars to be more refined) and settled in pens a with ad-lib hay and water.
The following day we went out to see the emaciated gelding we had moved the night before as he had gone down. He was bright, eating, showed no signs of colic, had normal membranes, a normal TPR and present but reduced gut sounds. But, he couldn’t rise, though he was game, he was just too weak. We decided to try heroics and dripped him with Hartmann’s and glucose, he responded by trying to rise and eventually stood with assistance. Sadly, later, as he tried to move across the pen he went back down, at this point he was euthanased. This was the hardest point. He had been saved from starvation in dreadful circumstances, only to be so weak as to require euthanasia 24 hours later. I have gone over and over the situation and come to the same conclusion- we did what was right at the time, what needed to be done- There was no better alternative- he had gone too far.
Thankfully his surviving stablemates were a success story. They ate. They were so, so hungry. But they gained weight in the space of 10 days, then were removed to an RSPCA farm where I saw them about 6 weeks later. They looked amazing, they were literally unrecognisable- thankfully they had been microchipped and I had filled in old school ID silhouettes so I could be confident they were the same ones. The colt was castrated and both were in a healthy body condition score from their starting points of ones of 0.5/5 and 1/5.
In normal cases this is where your involvement would end… but in a welfare case that is potentially going to trial, you are only just getting started…I was asked to make a statement by the RSPCA
The following are my personal findings, formed by personal experience, and having taken professional advice.
The RSPCA statement:
This sounds so straight forward and innocent.
“Can you write a report detailing what you saw and found when you attended the call”- yes, of course, easy- I have notes, lab reports etc- I write reports for insurance companies etc almost every day- how hard can it be?!
Oh how wrong could I be! This when it starts getting legal. Everything you write in your statement (or in this blog!) could be/is likely to be discussed, dissected and debated with you and others in a court of law- you should consider taking professional advice and if possible get an experienced colleague or adviser to proof read it through before you send it.
Again, this shouldn’t be a problem- you are a professional and have carried out a thorough, professional, well documented, clinical examination. You have also kept notes of who you spoke to, when and about what, what was said by whom, who was present, the surroundings… you can see how it can grow…
The key things as I understand it are- be honest, state the facts, stick to the facts.
As you were the examining vet on the day you will be a ‘witness of fact’. This means you were there and so you state what you saw and heard- the facts. But as a Veterinary Surgeon
You are also a professional- so are also likely to be called as a ‘professional witness’. This means you can interpret and give your professional opinion on the clinical findings or facts that you have adequate experience of- eg a heart rate of 40bpm is normal.
If you interpret your findings and add an opinion (eg when the heart rate is 40bpm- ie normal- the heart is not decompensating so the mild heart murmur is not going to be the cause of a BCS of 1/5) you may fall into ‘expert witness’ territory. This means that your experience in the field can be opened up to the defence and (as I understand it) you’re open to much greater grilling on your interpretation of the clinical findings, as well as your current clinical work load and experience.
In my case/experience, once in court, my questioning by the Judge meant any differentiation between professional witness and expert witness became blurred and marginal, if, in reality, it was present at all… my best advice having been through it recently is to talk to the solicitor or barrister that has decided to call you, in advance of the hearing.
It’s also worth reading the very useful information in the supporting guidance to the RCVS Code of Professional Conduct on the RCVS (ref) website explaining the different types of witness roles and the potential pitfalls that you might encounter when appearing in court. Even your Professional Indemnity Insurer may have advice if you are concerned that you might stray or be pushed into uncharted territory that might lead to your evidence being criticised.
So overall, my hard earnt/learnt top tips would be
· You need owner consent or the presence of a police officer to allow you and the RSPCA access to a property.
· Maintain the chain of evidence- record everything, label everything
· Take more blood tubes, pens, microchip readers and ways to ID things than you think you could possibly need
· Identify each animal completely- ID and microchip (with the owner’s consent), if necessary, so there is no confusion. Photograph the animal with it’s RSPCA ID number on a clipboard next to it. Photograph from all angles- get snap happy and CSI about it!
· Don’t forget the surroundings- look at water supplies, fencing etc
· Use a well regarded external lab for sample analysis, dispatch the samples by Special Delivery and warn the lab that they’re coming, so they don’t get lost/delayed
· When writing reports be succinct and make sure it’s clear which animal you’re talking about. Don’t waffle and only draw conclusions that you’re sure of or can prove- you may need to in court.
· Keep ALL your notes, even the rough ones, keep copies of emails- if it goes to trial, it could be well over a year before you need to give evidence- it’s amazing what you can forget in a year!.
· Talk to someone about what you experienced- a colleague, partner, family…………….obviously not someone who’s going to go straight to FB or the media, but share it, don’t bottle it up. You aren’t likely to be fine, even if you think you are because you’re a hardened equine vet…………..these are not normal cases, it’s likely to stay with you.
· Be professional at ALL times.
· Maintain confidentiality. These cases can attract well-meaning, knowledgeable horsey onlookers- all with their own opinions, about you, your examinations, the situation, you name it- they’ll have a loud opinion on it! Keep your head down and go into ‘vetting mode’- quietly polite, but do your job, don’t be distracted by the noise.
· Keep a large bottle of gin in the fridge!
Stage 2: Giving evidence in court:
If the RSPCA decide to prosecute a welfare case you will be asked to give a formal witness statement- though you may well already have done this, if not- make sure you take advice before you give your final statement.
The RSPCA officer in charge of the case will then keep you updated progress. Initially there is a court hearing where the charges are laid and a plea is given (ie guilty or not guilty). There may be a few date changes whilst the defendant finds a defence team and they have time to prepare a case.
A trial date will then be set. This is at a Magistrates Court (NB- this is different to a Crown Court- I didn’t know that!) The case may be heard by either 3 magistrates or a District Judge (no jury)- to give an idea of time scale, in my case the trial date was over a year after I saw the case- hence the need for loads of notes, pictures etc so you can reliably state what happened and who said what/was there etc.
I have to admit, the thought of giving evidence in a court of law is so far away from my comfort zone that it made (and still makes) me feel physically sick. You are entitled to decline attending court to give evidence in person- they have your statement and as a witness of fact all you may do is read it out.
For me, the horror of needing to re-live the whole experience a year later was also a large factor, but after discussion with the RSPCA’s legal team, I decided that, given the severity of the cases I examined, as a vet it was my duty to stand up and speak for the horses (sounds corny I know, but it’s true!). I would not have been able to live with myself if my non-attendance had in anyway weakened the case- making it look like I didn’t think it was worth my appearance (this may well have been me over- reacting!).
The case was scheduled and I was given a date to attend to give evidence. I planned my work and life around attending on that date- leaving myself with a half day before to prepare. But be warned- court dates and timings are changeable, at the last minute mine was- keep your phone on you throughout the trial duration in case you are needed at a different time. They routinely overbook, especially at Magistrate courts as they have a high level of ‘charges dropped’ cases in household and domestic disputes. The good news is that as a professional, if you are unable to attend at short notice when you were booked to attend at a later date then that is acceptable.
Anyway, long story short. I turned up at Court earlier than expected. There’s an array of airport style security to go through on entry, then the Witness Services take over. These are worth mentioning- their support materials are Government funded, but the ‘on the ground’ people are volunteers and they go out of their way to put you at ease and explain where you need to be and what happens. I was shown to a Witness waiting room, with tea, coffee and a toilet.
I was then given the chance to look at the Court before everyone arrived. It was a surprisingly small room. There was a small witness box for me to stand in, but at ground level and not far from the prosecution half of the bench and the Judge’s bench. The whole court is under the control of the Judge or Magistrates, but the Clerk of the Court sits below the Judge and makes sure that everyone behaves appropriately and obeys the rules of the court, and that the proceedings go in a way stated by the law- he can (and did) stop defence and prosecution teams if they are asking questions that the witness should not be expected to answer.
You are given the choice of swearing on a Holy Book of your choice, or saying an alternative oath that doesn’t involve religion- Witness Services make sure that you are OK with your choices and are able to read the wording, or there’s the option of repeating after them.
The prosecution barrister then went through some things she might ask me, then I was left to sit and ‘compose myself’ in the Witness room…not sure how ‘composing myself’ went, I pondered life and the universe and tried to stop feeling sick!
The Court Usher, when she arrived to collect me, was very discreet- I nearly missed the tap on the door, then it was in and straight into ‘The Oath’- just like you see on TV!
The key points that Witness services and the barrister highlighted were:
· Keep to the point.
· Speak slowly and clearly- some poor person somewhere is noting everything you say down, longhand
· The questions come from the barristers (typically to your left) but the answer must go to the Judge, not the barrister- so you do a swivel between the two, which feels a little weird.
· If you don’t know, say so. Don’t guess.
· Tell the truth (Obvs!)
· If you need a break- for a drink, to clear your head etc- you can ask for one
· If you need to sit down there is a chair, but you should ask permission from the Judge before sitting.
· If you take a break, you must not speak to anyone apart from Witness Services until you retake the stand
· If you share a witness room with another witness you must not discuss the case.
· It only becomes ‘evidence’ when you say it, before it comes out of your mouth it’s not evidence, but once it’s said it can’t be unsaid.
· Call the Judge ‘sir’
I would add:
· Particularly at magistrate courts, the Judge and legal teams may not have any idea what you are talking about when you start mentioning capillary refill times, lameness scores (or even what lameness looks like/is), heart murmurs- be prepared to have to explain your findings in both clinical terms and simple lay terms.
· As a professional witness you are entitled to take your notes- do- refer to them, read from them, rather than guessing or trying to remember and getting it wrong.
· Staple them together or put them in a folder so they can’t get out of order.
· If you don’t understand the question- say so- the legal team may have no medical training and the questions may not make sense!
· Stay calm, listen to the question, think about your answer, answer as well as you can.
· If you don’t know. Don’t worry, say so- be honest, this is not the time for bullsh**ing!
· Call colleagues or members of the public etc by their full names eg John Smith, or use a title eg. Mr Smith, Ms Smith, Dr Smith
Answer the prosecution’s (or defence’s) questions as well as you can- they will direct you, you just answer, don’t second guess them. The District Judge may ask additional questions along the way. Magistrates, apparently, don’t. When ‘your’ counsel has finished you will be handed over to the ‘opposition’ for cross examination- this feels more like a synoptic or old school cert exam, where you try to answer as well as you can, without necessarily knowing what answer they are expecting, or sometimes even what they are asking! They seemed to jump round a bit- between topics and horses, so there’s huge potential for getting really confused and making mistakes in what you say- this is where having your notes typed out in front of you can really help- you can make sure you’re talking about the same horse and just explain what you’ve written.
If you need a break to clear your head, ask for one.
Stick to your guns (the facts) and standard veterinary knowledge. Don’t say anything unless you’re sure about it. Ignore the smoke and fluff the ‘opposition’ will throw at you.
When they’ve finished, they’ll tell the judge and, if ‘your’ legal team have no further questions you’re free to go……………and it’s over- or is it??!!
If the defendant is found guilty they have the right to appeal (everyone does- it’s our legal system), they can also appeal the sentence. If either of these happen (or both) it will then go to the Crown Court and the big guns legal teams will be pulled out. It will take about a year to get to the Crown court, then the whole process begins again…….