The Charity Commission has opened a statutory inquiry into an animal charity which was criticised by a judge last year over private prosecutions.
Animal Protection Services was set up in late 2019 and said it was running a helpline for members of the public to report organised animal cruelty. It then investigated these cases and brought private prosecutions to court.
The regulator has significant concerns about the charity after a judge criticised the charity and its legal partner.
In a statement, the charity defended its record but said it would co-operate with the investigation.
'Wholly improper reasons and purposes' for prosecution
Animal Protection Services had worked with law firm Parry & Welch to bring about prosecutions, however, last year both were criticised by judges and ended up in a legal dispute with each other.
Last November, Manchester Crown Court judge Nicholas Dean accused Animal Protection Services and Parry & Welch of systemic fraud and perverting the course of justice by pursuing private prosecutions “with no evidential basis” and “for wholly improper reasons and purposes”.
According to a report in The Times the judge highlighted two separate legal cases conducted by the charity, which had “near-identical” witness statements submitted by a charity employee.
The Law Society Gazette reported that Dean complained about the law firm being able to claim significant sums of money from central funds. He also said he feared some people may have pleaded guilty under pressure.
Dean promised to send a copy of his ruling to the attorney general, police, the Charity Commission and the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Parry & Welch then brought a legal case against Animal Protection Services, claiming the charity owed them money. However, the court found in the charity's favour and awarded £22,000 costs against the law firm.
The partnership could not pay the costs. It has appointed administrators and has ceased trading, according to documents filed with Companies House.
Commission to question if people benefited inappropriately
Last week the Commission announced it had opened a statutory inquiry to investigate if individuals connected to the charity benefited inappropriately from its work.
During the inquiry, the Commission will look at the trustees' decision-making regarding its private prosecutions and if there has been any private benefit to the charity.
Animal Protection Services was registered in 2019 but is yet to file any accounts with the regulator. Its 2021 financial accounts are currently 56 days late.
There is no trustee or employee information available for the charity. The trustees have a dispensation in place, which means that their names do not appear on the register.
In most cases, trustee names appear on the register of charities. Dispensations can be granted by the Commission in cases where putting their legal name in the public domain could put someone in danger.
The regulator will inspect the charity's failure to file its annual accounts as well as the trustee's management of conflicts of interest.
Animal Protection Services: 'The charity continues its vital work'
In a statement on its website, the charity said: “Despite prosecuting over 100 cases before the courts, the charity has only received one appeal against conviction which is likely to be opposed. The charity has a success rate that is comparable with other private prosecutors and the Crown Prosecution Service.”
In 2020 legislation, known as Lucy's Law, banned third-party puppy sales in England. Several charities had campaigned for this to be introduced. Unlicensed breeders now face an unlimited fine or six months in prison.
Animal Protection Services said: “The charity prosecuted the majority of animal welfare licensing offences in England. The trustees hold the view that the law is only as good as its enforcement.”
The charity said it would continue with its mission.
“Despite the challenges within the last few months, the charity continues its vital work in investigating organised animal cruelty and the charity remains committed to ensuring that the charity works to protect all animals today, tomorrow, and in the future,” the statement said.