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Dealing with welfare cases

BEVA has launched a new toolkit to guide vets acting as expert witnesses in welfare cases

27 November 2019, at 9:00am

Animal welfare is absolutely central to our role as veterinary surgeons. Indeed, in the UK, the new veterinary surgeon on becoming a member of our governing body must say an oath along the lines of: “Inasmuch as the privilege of membership of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons is about to be conferred upon me, I promise and solemnly declare that I will pursue the work of my profession with integrity and accept my responsibilities to the public, my clients, the profession and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and that above all, my constant endeavour will be to ensure the health and welfare of animals committed to my care”.

Throughout the Code of Professional Conduct, the RCVS states veterinary surgeons must make animal health and welfare their first consideration when attending to animals. So based on that it would be reasonable to assume that veterinary surgeons were experts in animal welfare. That may indeed be the case, but I wonder how many of us could either provide a succinct sentence or two on what animal welfare is or write for longer on the topic.

This difficulty may be because animal welfare lacks a succinct definition. The BVA has stated that animal welfare relates to both the physical health and mental well-being of the animal, as encapsulated by the five welfare needs:

  • The need for a suitable environment
  • The need for a suitable diet
  • The need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • The need to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
  • The need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease

For specific information on the welfare of the horse, the Code of Practice for the welfare of horses, ponies, donkeys and their hybrids is a really useful document.

Despite constantly considering equine welfare in our daily work as vets, when we become involved in welfare cases, once we have dealt with the immediate needs of the horse there is potential for confusion about next steps. Working with the various animal welfare organisations is an obvious and important course to take but it is apparent from my work as an equine claims consultant at Veterinary Defence Society that guidance is lacking. There are many reasons for which we are contacted, but six main themes arise:

  • Called out to a case without being warned is potential seizure and therefore expert witness scenario
  • Called by the welfare organisation to examine a horse whose owner is a client
  • Didn’t realise the case would go to court and now not wanting to give evidence in court
  • Having to go to court and worried about cross examination (especially less experienced graduates)
  • Considerations of whether a “seizure certificate” is warranted
  • What to do when faced with a client who is causing unnecessary suffering

The RCVS Code of Professional Conduct sets out veterinary surgeons’ professional responsibilities. Supporting guidance provides further advice on the proper standards of professional practice. On occasions, the professional responsibilities in the code may conflict with each other and veterinary surgeons may be presented with a dilemma. In such situations, veterinary surgeons should balance the professional responsibilities, having regard first to animal welfare.

So, as a vet involved with a welfare case there are two important areas we must appreciate: our responsibilities with regard to client confidentiality and the difference between being a witness of fact and an expert witness. Client confidentiality issues are well explained in the code and we see more confusion over the witness of fact/expert witness scenario.

A veterinary surgeon may be called as a witness of evidence of fact. This means the witness is being asked to tell the court what they personally saw, said or did. A witness of fact should not in ordinary circumstances be asked questions, or offer answers, which require the witness to venture an opinion on a fact in issue. A professional witness is one who, by reason of some direct professional involvement in the facts of a case, is able to give an account of those facts to the court – that is a witness of fact who is also professionally qualified.

An expert witness is a person who is qualified by their knowledge, experience or formal qualifications, to give an opinion to a court on a particular issue to assist the court. The over-riding duty of expert witnesses is to the court, even if they are called and paid for by one of the parties to the case.

Sometimes the need to appear as a professional witness results from having already made a statement or provided a certificate, in response to a request from a client, or an organisation such as the RSPCA. In responding to these requests, veterinary surgeons very often go beyond a solely factual account in an effort to be helpful, without considering the possible need to stand behind their opinion in the witness box, at a later date.

Recognising these potential pitfalls and problems, BEVA has developed a one-stop shop for horse vets to help them navigate welfare cases with confidence. Launched in October, the practical Welfare Case Toolkit has been developed in conjunction with the RSPCA and includes a welfare workflow and quick download guides and welfare case forms.

The new Welfare Case Toolkit from BEVA gives you access to the information and resources you need even when you are on the road to support you in dealing with a welfare case.

The interactive welfare workflow provides a step-by-step guide to what happens when a vet is called upon to provide an opinion on the health and welfare of the animals involved. It has been produced in a mobile-friendly format or can be printed out and kept in the car. Supporting the workflow is a series of quick downloads, covering all aspects of the process.

The new Welfare Case Toolkit from BEVA can be accessed here.

Jonathan Pycock is an equine claims consultant for the Veterinary Defence Society and an equine reproduction expert. He is the immediate past president of the British Equine Veterinary Association.

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