Pro-hunt lobby launches High Court challenge

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Legislation used to force through the ban on hunting with dogs "is not truly an Act of Parliament" and the ban is therefore invalid, the High Court was told today.

Legislation used to force through the ban on hunting with dogs "is not truly an Act of Parliament" and the ban is therefore invalid, the High Court was told today.

Thousands of people are due to lose livelihoods and "a major source of recreation and enjoyment" because of the fundamental legal flaw.

Sir Sydney Kentridge QC made the submissions on behalf of the Countryside Alliance at the start of a legal challenge at the High Court in London.

The QC said the Hunting Act, which introduces the ban, received the Royal Assent last November and is due to come into force on February 18.

But its validity depended on the validity of the 1949 Parliament Act, which was used to bring the new law into being.

Sir Sydney told Lord Justice Maurice Kay and Mr Justice Collins: "We submit that it is invalid and that, despite its title, it is not an Act of Parliament."

Today's application for judicial review is in the names of Countryside Alliance chairman John Jackson, Bicester Hunt member Patrick Martin, from Oxfordshire, and Mair Hughes, 46, from Gilfach Goch, Mid Glamorgan, wife of the Master of the LLangeinor Hunt, who is also a farrier.

Mrs Hughes, 46, says her job as bookkeeper to the farriery is in danger from the ban, as well as her social life.

The importance of the issue was indicated by the speed with which the case had come to court, and the fact that the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC, was appearing in person to defend the legislation, said Sir Sydney.

The Hunting Act created new criminal offences.

In a packed court, the QC said: "If it becomes law, it will affect the livelihood of numbers of persons present, including two of the applicants."

"It will prevent many thousands more from continuing lawfully what has been for many a major source of recreation and enjoyment."

Earlier, outside London's Law Courts, Alliance chairman John Jackson described today's legal battle as probably the "most important constitutional case" the High Court has ever had to consider.

He said: "This case has little to do with hunting and much to do with the constitutional arrangements in our country and respect for the law."

One of the applicants, Mr Martin, was not in court but was said to be "hunting the Bicester with Whaddon Chase foxhounds in his role as huntsman".

MPs used the 1949 Parliament Act to force through the ban on the centuries–old sport last November after Commons Speaker Michael Martin invoked the Act for only the fourth time in 55 years to get the new law in place.

He intervened after peers in the House of Lords rejected a final opportunity for compromise with MPs by voting down a proposal to delay the ban until July 2006.

Today Sir Sydney asked the judges to rule the 1949 Act "of no legal effect", and the Hunting Act therefore invalid.

He said the 1949 Act was an attempt to "vary conditions" contained in the 1911 Parliament Act, which enabled a Bill to become an Act of Parliament "without the consent of the House of Lords".

But the 1911 Act contained a number of limiting conditions on those powers and "did not authorise the modifications of those conditions without the consent of the Lords".

Under the terms of the 1911 Act, a Bill could not become law unless it received the Royal Assent "having been passed by the House of Commons and rejected by the House of Lords on three successive occasions".

Two years had to elapse between the date of the Second Reading in the first of those sessions in the Commons and the date on which it passed the Commons in the third session.

But the Hunting Act, having been forced through under the 1949 Act, was not passed by the Commons in three successive sessions – and nor had the two–year rule been applied.

Sir Sydney argued the 1949 Act was an unlawful attempt to introduce constitutional changes.

He said: "We submit that, as a matter of fundamental constitutional law, the House of Commons had no power under the 1949 Parliament Act to increase its own powers and derogate from those of the House of Lords.

"The 1911 Act gave the House of Commons very great new powers, but they were only and always conditional powers."

The House of Commons, "without the consent of Parliament as a whole – including the House of Lords", could not change those conditions in order to increase its own power.

Today's hearing began what could be a long pursuit through the courts, with law lords sitting in the House of Lords making the final decision.

In addition to today's application for judicial review, a separate challenge is being brought by hunt supporters under the Human Rights Act.

The RSPCA welcomes the ban as "a watershed in the development of a more civilised society for people and animals".

The Hunting Act, which was forced through amid a storm of cheers and jeers, will not only ban fox hunting but also outlaw deer–hunting and hare–coursing with dogs in England and Wales.

The League Against Cruel Sports is opposing the Countryside Alliance challenge.

It is especially anxious to fight any moves to delay implementation of the ban if the legal proceedings drag on.

But the signs are that every effort is being made to speed today's case through the legal system, with the Court of Appeal already on alert to hear any appeal from the High Court's eventual ruling – expected on Friday this week – in early February.

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