They have won a total of pounds 80,150, and forced the police to pay legal bills estimated at more than pounds 250,000, according to figures compiled by John Mackenzie, a solicitor who has represented many saboteurs.
He said police had consistently overstepped their powers, often arresting saboteurs merely for being near a hunt and then detaining them all day. This was a form of 'informal internment'. 'In most of these instances they are arrested for doing things that do not amount to violence, like running around and shouting.'
Eleven forces have either lost damages claims or settled them out of court after legal actions brought as a result of such practices. Of the 84 saboteurs to have taken action against the police in the past 18 months, only three have lost, according to Mr Mackenzie.
In a recent case, Sussex police paid a total of pounds 16,400 to 28 saboteurs who were detained in a series of incidents in September 1990. Mr Mackenzie said that on one occasion, senior officers had effectively established a cordon sanitaire around the Chiddingford, Leconfield and Cowdray Hunt, West Sussex, and were prepared to arrest any protesters who breached it. It was the sort of tactic used during the miners' strike, he said. In another case, Thames Valley police agreeed to pay a total of pounds 36,500 to 25 people, some of whom were arrested while picketing a game fair and then detained at a police station.
According to Mr Mackenzie, this sort of procedure will inevitably fall foul of the law. The police have no powers to detain someone who is arrested to prevent a breach of the peace, he believes. As soon as the protesters are taken away from the area of the hunt, they should be released.
The Hunt Saboteurs' Association said that in such cases, its members had given up using the police complaints procedures and were advised to sue.
One saboteur said he had recently begun legal action against the police after an incident at a hunt on Humberside, where he was asked to leave private land. As he was walking away, a police constable shoved him from behind and told him to hurry up. He protested, and was arrested by the officer, who took him to the nearest police station. 'The custody officer took my details and then said he had no intention of charging me with anything, he was just going to lock me up until the hunt had finished.'
Last week, Sussex police said the 'difficulties faced by officers (at hunts) are becoming widely known. Police officers are faced with substantial practical problems when conflict, occasionally violent, may flare up without warning anywhere over a large geographical area.'
Thames Valley police said: 'Our main job is to show no prejudice, whatever the views of individual officers are.'
However, some forces have produced training packages for officers responsible for policing hunts. In Lincolnshire, for example, Inspector Mick Hopper has recorded a video aimed at 'removing some of the mystique' that he says surrounds anti-blood sport demonstrations. This tells officers that 'hunters have got the right to hunt and saboteurs have the right to protest, provided they do so within the law'.
Insp Hopper said: 'As far as I am concerned, if the police anticipate a breach of the peace, then they are entitled to arrest that person and to hold him for as long as necessary to prevent the breach of the peace occurring.' But he added: 'If you do arrest someone for breach of the peace, you must release them as soon as that likelihood has gone.'
Other senior officers say their task is becoming more difficult with both hunters and saboteurs more and more willing to use violence. Martin Reed, an inspector at Dunmow, Essex, said: 'We are in a no-win situation. We try to balance it down the middle.' After last year's narrow House of Commons vote rejecting a ban on hunting, both sides had 'upped their campaigns'.
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