A High Court judge has stepped down from hearing a heated dispute between huntsmen and animal rights campaigners – because of his strongly-worded support for the ban on hunting when he was a West Midlands MP.
Mr Justice Cranston, as Ross Cranston, Labour MP for Dudley North, had said in a press release in December 2000 that he welcomed the chance to vote in favour of the Hunting Bill and “consign this brutal practice to the dustbin of history”.
He was reminded of his words yesterday by lawyers for the Crawley and Horsham Hunt in West Sussex.
They said that, while not suggesting the judge would be biased, there might be “an appearance of bias” in the eyes of the public.
The judge, who became Sir Ross Cranston on his appointment to the High Court bench in January this year, said he could not remember the press release, and added that an MP’s vote in favour of a Bill did not necessarily amount to an expression of a passionate personal belief.
He also pointed out that he had taken the Judicial Oath – to “do right to all manner of people ... without fear or favour, affection or ill will”.
But he agreed to “recuse” himself from hearing the case because the public might take the view that he was biased in favour of one side in the case.
The judge ordered that the legal costs thrown away in the abortive hearing, amounting to several thousand pounds, should be paid out of public funds.
The hunt, backed by landowners and supported by the Countryside Alliance and the Masters of Foxhounds Association, is suing the West Sussex Wildlife Protection Group and its principal activists, Simon and Jaine Wilde, of Bognor Regis.
Because of the summer law recess, the case – brought under the Protection From Harassment Act – is now unlikely to be heard until October.
The court is being asked to grant an injunction banning hunt protesters from thousands of acres of private estate and farm land in West Sussex.
Lawyers for the hunt objectors took a “neutral stance” on the issue of bias, but pointed out that legal funding for their defence was limited and it was not a case in which the judge was acquainted with any of the witnesses or had a personal interest in the outcome of the case.