Outlawing animal rights extremism

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In 1994, the scientific community mounted its first major lobbying campaign of the modern era demanding stronger laws against extremists. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill was passing through parliament. This law made it illegal for anyone to trespass on land in the open air with the intent of preventing someone from doing something they had a legal right to do.

RDS, a predecessor of Understanding Animal Research, campaigned for an amendment to apply the law inside buildings. Despite extensive support from MPs, the bill was passed without the amendment. However, the Labour Government later passed it by simply removing the words 'in the open air' from the section of the Act about aggravated trespass. Thus the common animal rights tactic of disruptive 'office invasions' became a criminal offence.

But there was still no specific law dealing with animal rights extremism (ARE). The Prevention of Terrorism Act was designed to deal primarily with terrorism in Northern Ireland. In 1986 the Special Branch had set up a police intelligence gathering unit, the Animal Rights National Index (ARNI), but its task was restricted to collating information and advising regional police forces - it had no operational role.

After its remit had been extended, Anti-Terrorist Branch officers became involved in animal rights policing for the first time in 1991. But Dr Mark Matfield, then RDS Executive Director, later commented*: 'It is all too obvious that the law does not provide any kind of deterrent to those motivated to break in, burn or bomb in the name of animal liberation.'

Over the next 10 years the tactics of animal rights extremism changed. The prevailing problem at the turn of the 21st century was covert, insidious intimidation and harassment of individuals - often people who worked for suppliers who had no direct involvement in animal research. This posed a huge challenge in terms of prevention, detection, evidence gathering and successful criminal prosecution.

RDS became part of a coalition campaigning for a dedicated animal  rights extremism law. At the last minute, only days before the third reading of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill in 2005, Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt announced a new amendment which was to make it a criminal offence to cause 'economic damage' through organised campaigns of intimidation.

It became illegal to disrupt the lawful functioning of a business or other organisation holding an animal experimentation or breeding licence. The Bill also protected suppliers and customers working with animal research organisations.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which came into force in July 2005, filled other loopholes in the law. Demonstrations through so called 'home visits' became illegal, though only if it could be proved there was intent to cause alarm or distress. In one widely reported 'home visit' about 300 demonstrators had congregated outside the home of a leading scientist, but more often home visits involved a handful of activists.

Outside the UK

The situation in other countries is very varied and also changing as legislatures respond (or not) to animal rights extremism. Our website www.animalrightsextremism.info reports on animal rights extremist incidents around the world and occasionally reports on relevant legislation.

*Matfield M (1994) How the law deals with animal rights extremism RDS News October p16.

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