The Wild Justice legal challenge to the general licences GL04, GL05 and GL06

Wild Justice’s first legal case was a challenge of the General Licences GL04, GL05 and GL06 which ‘authorised’ the lethal control of 16 species of bird. Similar licences have been issued each year, for many years, on 1 January. We initiated a formal legal process where we challenged the decision of a public body, in this case Natural England. The decision we challenged was the issuing of those three general licences. The legal system requires such challenges to be made in a formal way and completed within three months of the decision being challenged. So, in essence the clock started ticking on 1 January for any challenge of these general licences.

Wild Justice’s legal success against Natural England had the following chronology:

1 January – Natural England issued General Licences GL04, GL05 and GL06 on website.

4 January – an information request was sent to Natural England about the decision-making process of issuing the licences.

25 January – Natural England replied saying that no further assessment or consideration had been made for 2019 because no issues had arisen in 2018.

13 February – “Pre Action Protocol” legal letter sent from Wild Justice’s lawyers to Natural England setting out why we considered the General Licences issued on 1 January, which ‘authorise’ killing of 16 bird species, to be unlawful.  In essence, these birds can only be killed under certain legal conditions and NE has to be satisfied that those conditions are met before issuing the licences.  NE had not satisfied itself of those things and so the licences are not lawful.

Here is the letter;

26 February – Natural England respond, a day ahead of the normal deadline for response, asking for two more weeks

27 February – Wild Justice says – no, Natural England can have one more week.

1 March – Natural England ask for an off-the-record, without-prejudice meeting with Wild Justice without lawyers present.

11 March – Chris Packham, Ruth Tingay, Mark Avery and two lawyers meet Natural England for an off-the-record and without-prejudice meeting; Wild justice insisted that lawyers were present and we’re glad that we did, as our lawyers are wonderful and the discussion after the meeting would have been difficult without them having heard the discussion, and indeed been part of it. We cannot disclose the details of the meeting as we had agreed Natural England’s request for confidentiality, but we are probably not pushing our luck to say that the meeting was polite and business-like.

13 March – Wild Justice receives confused and ambiguous written legal response from Natural England which does not concede the legal argument, nor provide evidence for the legality of current system.

Here is that letter:

You can make your own mind up about this letter from Natural England. And remember, this letter was received after four weeks when it should normally be sent after two weeks, and after a meeting with Wild Justice. Try these little tests of the letter. First, does it say anywhere that Wild Justice was wrong and that Natural England was going to fight this case through the courts with all its might? Second, does it say that Wild Justice was right and that Natural England was going to admit that the General Licences GL04, GL05 and GL06 were unlawful and undertake not to issue similarly unlawful licences in 2020 as requested by Wild Justice? We couldn’t find either position clearly stated in this letter and on the basis of the legal advice we received; and on the basis of the ticking clock which meant that we had just two weeks to complete the next stage of the legal process to put into place actions that would allow us to continue with the legal challenge.

15 March – Wild Justice launches crowdfunder on CrowdJustice platform to raise funds for legal challenge (this was the first public mention of what the case was about). Wild Justice gave Natural England over a month of quiet contemplation to work out the implications of our challenge and its response.

Mark Avery, one of the three co-directors of Wild Justice wrote on his blog ‘Our lawyers wrote to Natural England on 13 February but they only replied on Wednesday (after four weeks) and their response was confused and evasive. We’re not sure whether Natural England are admitting that they are presiding over an illegal licensing system or not! It may be that they are playing the Theresa May game of kicking the can down the road and hoping that something like a miracle happens but it’s terribly difficult to be sure. And the clock is ticking as we must file our arguments with the court in the next two weeks to be within time. In fact, it will be around my birthday, Brexit Day (perhaps) on 29 March that the legal case has to be filed. For me, this is a question of why the agency whose job it is to protect wildlife and uphold wildlife law, and its parent government department which has similar responsibilities, have allowed millions of birds to be killed unlawfully (according to our legal advice) for nearly four decades.‘.

21 March – legal claim forms were issued in the court on behalf of Wild Justice asking for judicial review.

25 March – crowdfunder reaches target of £36,000 in 10 days.

23 April – Out of the blue Natural England announces revocation of three General Licences on 25 April and that, at least for now, anyone wanting to kill any of the species formerly listed on those General Licences will need to apply for and receive an actual licence from Natural England.  A review of the General Licences is planned.

That’s how we got to the sudden, unexpected, and actually unrequested revocation of the three general licences GL04, GL05 and GL06 and the start of a process which should lead to better licences that authorise those actions which are allowed by the law. It appears that the licensing of lethal control of those species formerly included in the species lists og GL04, GL05 and GL06 is now very much up for review in the short and medium term. This must be a good thing and is actually long overdue.

Wild Justice is pleased that its actions have stimulated a serious and urgent review of a flawed licensing system. Wild Justice will play a constructive part in that process, as you will see when we publish our response to the government consultation on general licences on Monday. However, even now we are looking at other cases where we can use the legal system on behalf of wildlife.