Engaging legal representation early on can save time and money when appealing a Shot Gun Certificate revocation

The recent announcements by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association (CPSA) about their standard members’ insurance can only be welcome news to shooters.

They will shortly extend their coverage to include costs incurred appealing police decisions in respect to the refusal or revocation of firearm and shotgun certificates. The cost of an appeal is considerable and appearing in court can be daunting. Nevertheless, certificate holders do appeal successfully.

I met one such person — who we shall refer to as Chris (though that is not his real name) — who told me about his experience of appealing the decision by Essex Police to revoke his shotgun certificate.

Chris was represented by the CPSA’s honorary solicitor, Laura Saunsbury, and his barrister, Nick Doherty. I spoke to both, but Assistant Chief Constable Julia Wortley of Essex Police declined to be interviewed and only provided a statement. Apart from the early costs he incurred, Chris was funded by the National Small-bore Rifle Association’s (NSRA’s) insurance scheme.

Burden of proof

Laura felt that Chris had a good case. Although he was arrested, he was never charged or cautioned. There was no admission of any wrongdoing and no improper conduct. He had been a certificate holder for a long time. In an appeal, the burden of proof is on the police to prove their decision was correct, not on the appellant to prove that it wasn’t. The court is required to make a fresh decision based on the evidence available at the time of the hearing, not to review the original decision.

In January 2012, Chris and his wife were experiencing marital problems. As a result of which, they were arrested on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm. The police seized Chris’s shotgun and the relevant certificate while he was in the police station and promised that he would be given a receipt. However, Chris was never given a receipt and still has no record of exactly what was seized.

Chris and his wife regarded the incident as a wake-up call and successfully sought help with their relationship. Chris enquired the next day about getting a receipt and having his gun returned. The firearms enquiry officer (FEO) said the gun and certificate would be returned after six months if there were no further problems. Later, in court, the police claimed this temporary “surrender” was voluntary, but Chris said he was never given any option.

Delayed revocation

After six months, Chris contacted the FEO again. The police arrived with intelligence data relating to another person of the same name, who was well known to the police. Chris had to point out that the police had all their facts wrong. The FEO then agreed to recommend that Chris should have his gun and certificate back, but nothing happened. Chris contacted the FEO on several occasions, but was told not to rock the boat. After five or six months, Chris was getting nowhere, so he sought advice from Laura.

At this point things progressed much more quickly, but not to Chris’s advantage. Seventeen months after the original incident, Assistant Chief Constable Wortley revoked Chris’s certificate and Chris appealed. In court, it became apparent that the FEO and the inspector who visited Chris and his wife had recommended that the gun be returned to them.

However, the superintendent had taken a different view and recommended revocation. This was because Chris refused to accept the return of his gun on the condition that it was stored elsewhere. The police have no right to place conditions on a shotgun certificate.

Matter of interpretation

Preparing for the court hearing involved a lot of form filling, finding referees and other work. Chris said the actual court appearance wasn’t that bad, however. He had been fully briefed on the process by his barrister, Nick. Chris felt that the way in which his statements were read in court by the police put the wrong emphasis on many aspects, and his wife had to correct the police interpretation on several occasions.

Nick and Chris had gone through the points they wished to get across beforehand, so his questioning was not too much of a problem. The police barrister was potentially more daunting, but Chris thought she might have felt the police were going to lose anyway, and so did not ask difficult questions. The court upheld the appeal and ruled that Chris should be given a new certificate for the full five-year period.

When Chris went to collect his gun he found that it had been damaged. He has made a claim for compensation, which the police have since agreed. Laura tells me that the police often don’t look after guns properly, and that it’s common to get phone calls saying a gun is damaged.

Test of reasonableness

Nick explains that senior officers get very nervous if there is a problem such as domestic violence, but that any decision taken should pass the test of reasonableness. The police are sometimes overly cautious and effectively pass the buck to the court.

Laura says certificate holders often wait much longer than they should before taking action when the police are being unreasonable. In the long run it saves money if you engage a solicitor early on. Legal intervention can often head off a revocation and the early involvement of a solicitor sends a clear message that a person is serious. It’s essential to employ a solicitor with experience of firearms matters.

Laura advises that anyone who is facing potential problems should lodge their guns with a registered firearms dealer or other certificate holder to avoid seizure and possible damage. She says people should be proactive by asking for a meeting with the police to try to resolve things. Judges take a negative view of the licensing department if the holder was trying to co-operate and the department declined a meeting.

The court thought the police decision was wrong. I had hoped that some lessons might have been learned, but I’m not sure they were. The most relevant part of the police statement simply says: “Essex Police acknowledges that the review process took far longer than it should have done.”