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  • Sheep exemption gets the chop

    Posted on October 12th, 2009 admin No comments
    Can the pictures be any worse than this?

    Can the pictures be any worse than this?

    Back in March I wrote about a case involving Devon and Cornwall Police and a grisly and bizarre case of sheep murder on the moors.

    An applicant had asked for details of the investigation, including police photos of the dead sheep, but had been refused under S.30 (investigations). I wrote about the case [here] and the original decision notice from the Commissioner can be found [here].

    Well, the case was taken to tribunal by the applicant Mr Michael Freebury and the panel have decided that the photographs can be released.

    The S.30 case was put in the Tribunal by Louise Fenwick, the Freedom of Information Officer for Devon and Cornwall Police. She told the Tribunal that “she was cognisant that applications for disclosure of sensitive and confidential information relating to criminal investigations may be made by perpetrators and those directly involved with the crimes they seek disclosure on. Therefore as a general principle she would consider disclosure in unsolved crimes to be prejudicial except in very exceptional circumstances.”

    The decision notice went on to say: “Ms Fenwick further attested that, in her view, there would be prejudice flowing from disclosure as it would harm any investigation into the crime in particular and subsequent crimes. The disputed information, she claimed, showed the Constabulary’s modus operandi for the investigation of this crime and this would be the same for other crime and future complaints of ‘sheep deaths’.

    “She claimed that the manner in which the sheep met their death was not released into the public domain and that release of such information ‘could seriously jeopardise our ability to detect the offenders for this crime and also to detect any future crime’.”

    WesternThe key point in this Tribunal was the fact that the applicant was able to bring to the case details of a press cutting from the Western Daily Press, that had not been considered by the Information Commissioner when making the original decision.

    Some key passages from the article were reprinted in the Tribunal’s finding.

    These were:

    • “Six sheep were found with their necks broken and their eyes removed on land at Moortown near the edge of Dartmoor. Four of the their bodies were arranged in a regular square shape, another two were lying next to a pattern of stones.
    •  “Our understanding is that this place used to be some sort of meeting place for Pagans,” said a spokesman for the Devon and Cornwall police”.
    • The dead sheep, worth £600, were still warm when they were found by their owner………….. on Sunday morning.
    • There were the four sheep and then 10ft or 15ft away there were another two, which were laid next to three stones which had been arranged in a pattern” he said.
    • The stones looked like a kind of gateway, a similar thing that had been found in January”
    • In this case, the eyes were completely removed from the sheep, and there were no signs of the messy pecking that could attribute the loss to an attack by birds.
    • Police confirmed that the animals had their necks quickly broken and there were no indications of a prolonged struggle or suffering.
    • It is thought that at least two people would have to had to have [sic] been involved, given the sheer physical strength needed for the killing and arranging of the sheep.”

    The Tribunal considered this article as key to the case as they stated there was nothing in the police pictures of the dead sheep that had not already been noted in the article.

    Therefore it concluded that although the S.30 exemption was engaged the public interest argument was an equal balance between disclosure and non-disclosure. Because the public interest test had equal weight on both sides the law states the information should be disclosed.

    You can see a copy of the Tribunal’s findings [here] and an application for the release of the photographs [here].

  • The grisly case of the sheep on the moors and the photos that’ll turn you mad

    Posted on March 20th, 2009 admin No comments



    Where's Watson when you need him?

    Where's Watson when you need him?

    A mystery on the moors, local police are baffled, a gruesome maniac disembowelling sheep…… It has all the ingredients of a Sherlock Holmes story, but these are in fact the details of a decision notice issued by the Commissioner that raise a few interesting legal points.


    The ICO upheld a decision by Devon and Cornwall police to refuse a request which had asked for access to the documents, including veterinary and forensic reports relating to a sheep attack incident in which a number of the animals had been killed.




    Eventually the matter rested on a S.30 exemption (investigations) relating to a bundle of evidence in the case which comprised of:

    • A log of the initial report of the sheep deaths,
    • A record of the steps taken by the public authority in response to the report,
    • A witness statement, and
    • Photographs of the dead sheep.

    Devon and Cornwall police said the public interest was in favour of the maintenance of the exemption saying the release of the information might stop people coming forward with evidence in this case and in others.

    Nobody has been charged with the crime – which is logged as ‘criminal damage’ – and the case has been closed, although it could be re-opened if new information comes forward.

    Officials at the ICO studied the case and sided with the police saying that the exemption had been correctly applied and that the public interest test was assessed correctly.

    However, a number of interesting points flow from the decision.



    "I'm not bleating, but sheep murder = criminal damages. What about my rights?"

    "I'm not bleating, but sheep murder = criminal damage. What about my rights?"



    Firstly the ICO reiterated the point first set out by the Tribunal in the ‘Jeremy Thorpe case’ [EA/2006/0017] when it considered the double-edged argument of the age of the information relating to S.30.

    It stated that obviously as the age of an enquiry goes on the chance of prejudice reduces, but at the same time the age of the matter means the public interest also diminishes. It would appear from the rulings that these two opposing forces reduce at an equal rate – effectively cancelling each other out.

    It then leaves us with a determining factor that would appear to be: “Did the investigation lack integrity and probity?” In our sheep on the moors case the ICO seems happy that the police did a good job and so the papers will remain secret.

    But I thought the point of FoI was that organisations would be publicly accountable and we could all make our own judgements based on the facts. It would seem from this judgement that somebody within the ICO is setting themselves up as an expert on how police investigations should be conducted and having looked at the papers has given Devon and Cornwall police a clean bill of health. I thought that was a job for the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

    The logical extension of this judgement is that a request for evidence will only be released if it shows police incompetence, and the ICO has set itself up as the best person to assess that! It begs the question how many former police officers are now working as complaint officers at the ICO to assess with any level of expertise whether an investigation has been carried out with “integrity and probity”.

    Also of interest in this decision was the police initially claiming the release of the savaged sheep photos would “have an adverse affect on the community as a whole” suggesting that viewing the images would endanger the mental well being of those who saw them. The ICO rightly said if this was the case then it should have been a S.38 (health and safety) exemption rather than a S.30 exemption.

    I have found a couple of news stories (here and here) which I think could be the original incident.