A man found guilty at the end of the longest animal rights trial in legal history has launched an appeal, claiming the judge should not have heard the case because of his interest in blood sports.
Sean Kirtley, 42, was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail for his part in a prolonged campaign against Sequani Ltd by Judge Peter Ross at Coventry Crown Court earlier this year.
The case, which has been unreported until now, has become a cause célèbre among anti-vivisection campaigners after the activist became the first person to stand trial accused of conspiring to interfere with an animal research establishment under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act.
In addition to the custodial sentence, he received a five-year antisocial behaviour order, which will come into effect on his release. But Kirtley's supporters claim it was impossible for him to receive a fair trial after the judge disclosed in a letter to lawyers that "one of my hobbies is game shooting".
Inviting submissions ahead of the case, Judge Ross concluded: "I do not consider that I should disqualify myself from hearing this case and believe that I can give all parties the fair hearing that they are entitled to." He enclosed a copy of his Who's Who entry detailing his background interests as a keen shot, smallholder and fisherman.
Mike Schwarz, Kirtley's solicitor, said yesterday that the judge's hobbies would form a key plank of the appeal against the sentence and conviction. Campaigners say that the case raises serious concerns over the right to legitimate protest following the introduction of the Act in 2005.
Speaking at the conclusion in May of the 18-week trial, Detective Inspector Dave Williams of West Mercia Police described Kirtley, of Malvern, Worcestershire, as "a dedicated animal rights activist who devoted a significant part of his life to leading an organised, systematic and sustained campaign to target Sequani Ltd with the ultimate aim of closing the company down".
But supporters say the prosecution failed to establish that Kirtley was guilty of anything more serious than running a website publicising legal protests.
The investigation, Operation Tornado, which involved 120 officers, and the subsequent trial cost more than £4.5m. Of 14 people charged in connection with the long-running protests at Sequani, in Ledbury, Worcestershire, seven stood trial. Only Kirtley and a second man, Daniel Griffiths, 39, who admitted two charges of interfering with the contractual relationships of an animal research establishment, were convicted. Griffiths received a 30-week jail term suspended for two years.
Mr Schwarz said he was deeply concerned over the implications of the case. "This is an unfair law which deviates from normal principles of criminal justice and the result is that what many people might see as conventional protesting becomes criminalised at all levels," he said. He said that the jury was also prevented from seeing evidence of the work carried out at Sequani after it was ruled inadmissible.
The company, which assesses the safety of healthcare products and has been the target of demonstrations for nearly two decades, said it welcomed the use of the Act, which it said "sent out a clear message... to the extremists that their behaviour would not be tolerated in a democratic society".
A spokesman for the Judicial Communications Department, which represents judges, said: "We cannot comment on matters that are the subject of appeal."
The two men involved in the case
Currently serving a four-and-a-half-year prison term at HMP Blakenhurst. The 42-year old from Malvern, Worcestershire is a lifelong opponent of animal testing who has also campaigned against shooting. Supporters say prosecution witnesses conceded that while Kirtley had been present at the demonstrations he had been "silent and peaceful" throughout. In the appeal submitted last month, lawyers claim Judge Ross should not have presided over the case to "prevent the appearance of bias".
His Honour Judge Peter Ross
The 55-year-old former director of the Office for Supervision of Solicitors has been a circuit judge since 2004 and hears most of his cases at Coventry Crown Court. Judge Ross's entry in Who's Who details his hobbies as "shooting, smallholding, gardening and fishing". In a letter issued during the trial, he said he considered his interest did not disqualify him from presiding over a fair trial.