Sunday 21 December 2014

Officials’ errors landed innocent farmer in the dock

Judge criticises Department of Agriculture chiefs over their 'heavy-handed' approach

Published 27/07/2014 | 02:30

The landmark case is believed to be the first of its kind to be taken against a private investigator
The landmark case is believed to be the first of its kind to be taken against a private investigator
Judge Leonie Reynolds

THE Department of Agriculture's special investigation unit has been criticised in an internal review that identified a series of "errors" during its prosecution of a farmer for allegedly tampering with a TB test on his cattle so he could claim compensation.

The case against the farmer, Douglas Fannin, was thrown out of Cavan Circuit Court last November by Judge Leonie Reynolds, who said his integrity was intact but questioned the integrity of the Department of Agriculture.

The Sunday Independent has learned that an internal departmental review found "a series of errors" in relation to the case and concluded that in future, officials should be better trained on how to give evidence in court and also urged improvements in preparing case files in advance of trials.

The review was completed by the Department in April but has not been published.

The Special Investigation Unit, has been repeatedly criticised over the years by farmers' groups and politicians for being heavy-handed.

Judge Leonie Reynolds criticised the "heavy handed" approach taken by the Department against Mr Fannin.

In 2009, Douglas Fannin got his cattle tested for Tuberculosis by a local vet. Department inspectors examined the herd afterwards and formed the view that some of the TB tests had been interfered with.

They suspected that some cattle had been administered an "unknown substance" to mimic a positive reaction to a TB test so the animals would have to be destroyed and the farmer compensated.

He was charged with test interference and criminal damage with intent to defraud. He vigorously denied the charges.

Key to the collapse of the case was the issue of a brucellosis test. Female cattle must be subjected to a brucellosis test - a type of blood test which is different to a TB test - before they can be moved off a farm.

Importantly, the Department of Agriculture had wrongly suggested that Mr Fannin hadn't sought a brucellosis test.

However, it transpired during the trial that he had. Not only that, the Department of Agriculture had a record of it. This and other concerns led the judge to direct the jury to find Mr Fannin not guilty.

The Department has denied allegations that it had not disclosed information to the court. It said that "errors" were identified in relation to the brucellosis test. The Department confirmed that Mr Fannin's animals were destroyed and released into the food chain in 2009.

Brendan Muldowney, the solicitor who acted for Mr Fannin, asked why the Department allowed the animals back into the food chain, given that it had alleged they were contaminated by an unknown substance.

"Surely it would have been more prudent to withhold them as, if they could not identify the substance as alleged, how did they know its consequences or effect on the safety of the meat for human consumption? On the other hand since they were unable to identify the alleged contaminating substance why did they not consider from the beginning that to prosecute Douglas Fannin was both unsafe and unsound?"

Sunday Independent

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