Certificate holders should be familiar with Condition 4(b) of their shotgun certificates. This is the standard condition requiring reasonable precautions to be taken for the safe custody of a shotgun when, among other events, it is in use or in transit. Typically, this condition applies when the certificate holder is shooting or travelling to or from a shoot.

My own observations suggest that certificate holders are keen to comply with Condition 4 (b) and are anxious about the security of their shotguns in these circumstances, particularly during shoot lunches and suppers.

These concerns are well placed for three reasons. First, certificate holders want to avoid their shotguns falling into the wrong hands. Second, they hate the idea of losing cherished guns. Third, they fear that if their guns are stolen they will lose their shotgun certificates and possibly be prosecuted for breaching this condition of their shotgun certificate.

It’s this last point that exercises me when I am wearing my legal hat. For some time police forces and their firearms departments have been ignoring the “reasonable precautions” wording of Condition 4(b) and, in effect, imposing “no-fault” revocations on certificate holders who have, in fact, taken reasonable precautions for the safe custody of their shotguns.

Victims, not criminals

For example, last year, Suffolk Constabulary’s deputy chief constable wrote to all the certificate holders on his records quite properly and positively, seeking their assistance in preventing the theft of firearms. However, his letter included an unmistakable warning that they were likely to have their certificates revoked if their shotguns were stolen from their unattended vehicles in pub car parks. Indeed, a few certificate holders had their certificates revoked after criminal incidents of this nature.

Then, that respected firearms expert, Bill Harriman, wrote an article about the topic in Shooting Times (Guns and vehicles, 18 December). Bill pointed out that the police often regard someone who has had a gun stolen from their car as a criminal rather than a victim. Much as I applauded and applaud all constabularies’ efforts to prevent shotguns being stolen, the lawyer in me knew that no-fault revocations following the theft of shotguns — inevitably imposed on certificate holders who were the victims of crime — extended further than was intended by law and were or could be wrong in law.

My legal consultancy company, ShootingLaw Ltd, advised on several such revocations without receiving instructions to pursue an appeal all the way. This prevented me from testing my contention that some firearms departments were sometimes acting in excess of their powers and without the law. However, all this has changed with the Dorchester Crown Court appeal of Mr Michael John Barnes, after the revocation of his certificate by Dorset Police following the theft of two shotguns from his vehicle.

Mr Barnes left his shotguns completely concealed in his locked, alarmed car in a pub car park while he was having a post-shoot supper. He stowed his cartridges separately. He was in the pub for three hours. It was not practical for him to go home before the meal (an hour’s drive) and he thought it unlikely that he would be allowed to take his guns into the pub with him. He had not secured the shotguns with a security chain, but would do so in future. The court considered the 2005 Home Office Security Handbook and noted that the guidelines in it were largely complied with by Mr Barnes.

The court accepted that Mr Barnes was a responsible citizen and that the references produced demonstrated his respectability and integrity. The court considered that he could keep his shotguns without danger to the public or the peace. It allowed his appeal.

The significance of this case is that it shows that the Crown Court is prepared to overrule chief police officers on the issue of certificate revocation even though, as in this case, it does not overtly criticise or question their original decision. Each case will, of course, turn on the individual facts, but persons of good reputation who have done their best to comply with the conditions of their certificate and the 2005 guidelines will have reasonable prospects of success in an appeal.

Co-operation is key

Obviously, certificate holders will want to co-operate with the police as the best way of securing their firearms in a reasonably practicable way. Indeed, per Lord Cullen, elementary co-operation with the police is a prerequisite for having and keeping certificates. However, it’s when the police seek to impose a threshold of compliance with the terms of the certificate that is more onerous than it should be in law that their decisions are open to legal challenge.

The outcome of this appeal should give some comfort to shotgun certificate holders who, all reasonable precautions notwithstanding, are unfortunate enough to have shotguns stolen from their vehicles. It should also cause chief police officers to acknowledge that, where reasonable precautions have been taken, a theft of a firearm is not in itself a reason for revoking the victim’s certificate.

In conclusion, I would like to congratulate Michael Barnes for pursuing his appeal and highlighting this point of public interest in the wider shooting community. I would also like to thank counsel, Mr William Powell, of Trinity Chambers, in Peterborough, who not only conducted the appeal with great skill, but has also supplied an official Note of the Judgement of the Court.

David Barrington Barnes practised for many years as a specialist firearms law solicitor and is now managing director of firearms law consultants ShootingLaw Ltd. To contact him, email bb@shootinglaw.co.uk.