Just one of the dictionary definitions of a syndicate is ?a group of people who combine to rent shooting, fishing etc?. This definition pinpoints the activity of many shooting syndicates ? they rent a shoot and apply their members? subscriptions to the payment of the rent, and all the many other activities involved in operating a shoot. Whether a syndicate involves the compilation of big bags or just three or four friends hunting for their supper, the principle is the same, with the syndicate members associating to pursue their common interest in shooting.

The importance of having a syndicate agreement cannot be emphasised enough, even though few syndicates have an agreement. This is a document, which should be settled by a solicitor, the intention of which is to regulate arrangements between the members. As a minimum, the agreement should cover the date it was made, the name of the syndicate manager, shoot captain, treasurer and so on. The names and addresses of the members should be set out in a schedule to the agreement, and their respective shares. (Sometimes a member may have more than one gun in the syndicate.)

The amount of the annual subscription either needs to be set out or referred to, together with provision for any surcharge. Provisions need to be included to cover many other aspects, such as dealings with third parties, possible tax, National Insurance and VAT obligations and liabilities, and the rules regulating the conduct of members on and off the shooting field. Several of these points are considered in further detail below. Inevitably, relations are not always smooth.

I will examine some of the pitfalls of syndicate shooting in the hope that they may help to avoid trouble. All the examples are based on the cases I have experienced first hand in the course of practice. Perhaps the most frequent cause of trouble flows from the shoot lease or licence under which the shooting rights are held. With reference to a syndicate situation consider the following issues:

  • Does your syndicate have a lease or licence at all?
  • If so, is it long enough to enable you to
    plan conservation works and plantings?
  • What restrictions are there in it, and are
    any of them unduly onerous?
  • Who, in your syndicate, actually holds
    the lease and on what basis?

    In the absence of a lease or licence for a term of years, a syndicate has no security of tenure worth writing of, and having built up a shoot at considerable expense is liable to be evicted at the whim of the owner. A term of years will give the syndicate time to invest in the shoot and recoup its investment in quality shooting. Again, a shoot may be so restricted not just in what it shoots but in its ancillary management activities that it is not feasible to improve or operate it effectively. In negotiating a shoot lease the syndicate should be advised by a competent land agent and solicitor.

    Another key question is who holds the lease? Usually, this is one or two of the syndicate?s senior members. First, do they hold it on behalf of all the members (as trustees, in effect). It is not unknown for the leaseholder members to expel other members and retain the lease for their exclusive benefit. Second, have the other members given or should they be asked to give the leaseholders an indemnity in respect of their potential liabilities under the lease? If shooting were prohibited or rendered impracticable by an outbreak of disease, would the non-leaseholding members pay their share of the syndicate?s lease rent and other outgoings? There could be too much taken on trust here, with one or more of the syndicate?s members being left with substantial liabilities.

    The boss

    Moving on to another topic, all but the smallest syndicates will have employees such as one or more gamekeepers and, on a casual basis, beaters, stops, pickers-up, drivers and so on. Who is the employer? Is it the whole syndicate or just one or two members?

    The answer will vary, but the members must decide upon this because it affects various obligations and liabilities and will have to be disclosed on such documents as the keeper?s contract of employment. Again, if one member is the employer, for convenience, other members should perhaps sign up to an agreement to contribute to the payment of any employment claims and indemnify the employer member for a proportionate share based on his or her share in the syndicate.

    Accidents will happen even on the best-run shoot and so it is vital for the syndicate to carry shoot insurance. This is compulsory for the syndicate in its role as employer. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) among others provide insurance and it is unthinkable that a syndicate should omit to insure. A grave accident could result in a multi-million pound claim, which would bankrupt the members of the average syndicate. These days Health and Safety legislation affects not just persons operating for profit but all persons with the responsibility for conducting an activity so the prosecution of the employer could follow a breach of the legislation, most likely after an accident.

    The syndicate needs to be sure which of its members are liable and what they may be liable for. It?s suggested that a Health and Safety officer is appointed to prepare a risk assessment and draw up and to review and update a policy. It is no longer sufficient to say safety is paramount and leave it at that. Health and Safety compliance must be evident and, in default, one or more members of the syndicate may be prosecuted and, if convicted, be fined and acquire a criminal record, which may lead to a revocation of shotgun and firearms certificates and difficulties with future insurance.

    So-called ?regulatory crime? is a growth industry and syndicate members could become enmeshed in it through default or lack of attention to the myriad of legislation and regulation that affects shooting, not just in relation to Health and Safety but also in respect of the use and storage of poisons and traps, and the discharge of effluent, wild-game handling and transport.

    With syndicates being mainly for the enjoyment of their members, few are incorporated as either limited or ?by guarantee? companies, so the members are liable. If an injured party successfully sued an uninsured syndicate for, say, £1million, its members would be jointly and severally liable for the judgement debt. Perhaps incorporation should be considered more often by large-scale syndicates, in which large sums of money are involved.

    Know the rules

    Most syndicates regulate their activities by reference to shoot rules, which should be issued to members and guests prior to shooting. As a private association or group, the syndicate is entitled to have and enforce its own shoot rules. Typically, these will require members to have a valid shotgun certificate and game licence and insurance cover or, often, membership of BASC, which takes care of this. As a private organisation the contents of the syndicate rules are at the unfettered discretion of its members and if they want to insist that regimental ties must be worn that is their prerogative.

    On a more serious note, the syndicate may expel members for whatever reason, and an expelled member has no direct redress, though he might sue for the return of his subscription or embar, on a defamation action. The civil courts will not readily interfere with fallings-out within what are, in effect, private clubs.

    The syndicate?s money will generally be handled by a treasurer and it is sensible for the syndicate to operate the usual checks. Such money is held and handled for the benefit of the syndicate?s members and so the treasurer is in a position of good faith and trust.

    Finally, the recent growth of roving syndicates, and some of the problems experienced, highlights the need for such syndicates to insist on a day shooting agreement and to check the terms of this are satisfactory for them. Certainty is as desirable in these as it is in all the relations of the syndicate both among themselves and with third parties.