7 min read

The legal guardian of animal rights

Hayley Firman, head of prosecution for the RSPCA, says that her idea of success in her role is not about punishment, but about justice for animals that do not have a voice.

"I am always a bit cautious about saying that when someone is convicted of a crime it’s a ‘success story’, because it’s not a success for them, is it? But putting people before the court and obtaining convictions for their criminal offences is a justice for the animals, so that their welfare and lives can be improved. There’s also the additional aim that further offences against other animals are prevented.”

Hayley’s highly respected career has given her 30 years of legal experience, from working locally at a law firm, to becoming a district crown prosecutor specialising in serious sexual offences, to her role now where she often works on high-profile cases of animal mistreatment and abuse. While she is no longer able to comment in detail about the subject, Hayley was recently involved in the conviction of premiership footballer found guilty of abusing his pet cats, which have since been removed from his care.

Hayley was just 12 years old when she decided she wanted to work in law.

She says: “There was an iconic television programme called Hill Street Blues, and I fell in love with the idea of being the prosecutor who featured in it. It sparked my interest in becoming a lawyer.”

After studying Law at the University of Wolverhampton, Hayley trained and worked as a solicitor in a medium-sized high street firm. She quickly realised that defence wasn’t her choice of role, and so she turned her attentions to becoming a crown advocate and joined the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Hayley learnt her craft in the Magistrate’s Court, took exams to become a higher court advocate, transferred to the bar and practised as a barrister, and then began prosecuting in the Crown Court on behalf of the CPS. Around this time, she began to specialise in the area of serious sexual offences.

She continues: “I think it was by accident – you don’t go out and say, you know, I really want to prosecute sexual offences – but I was interested in it and I had an aptitude for it."

“I was also the pioneer for the idea that the CPS should specialise and have a department specifically dealing with sexual offences. Consequently I ended up managing the West Midlands’ Serious Sexual Offences Unit."

Hayley says that this time period was likely the most rewarding of her life in the CPS, due to her “wonderful team” and because she was prosecuting cases in the vitally important area of child exploitation.

Unsurprisingly, the role involved difficult duties, the toughest of which Hayley says was when she and her team decided that they did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute. She considers herself resilient, but in dealing with an area as challenging as sexual offences it can’t have been easy to face people who fiercely disagreed with the decision not to press ahead with a case.

Hayley says: “I would never have gone into one of those meetings unless I felt that what I was saying was right. But it’s very difficult and the intellectual decision-making that goes into assessing evidence is a tricky process."

“I can’t remember specifically, but I’m sure there were times when I looked at cases and felt very frustrated at not being able to proceed.”

Despite loving her job in the CPS, after 23 years in the role Hayley took a midlife gap year. She used this opportunity to explore a variety of new career areas: private investigation, dog grooming, and teaching. Hayley later set up her own chambers, did some freelancing, and as a lifelong animal lover applied for the position she now holds with the RSPCA.

Hayley is now responsible for all the prosecutions of RSPCA cases in England and Wales, and spends much of her job leading and managing a team of 11 people. She is also involved with strategic planning, legal queries, media enquiries, internal development, and setting up systems and processes.

People take animals very seriously, as they should, and are very passionate about them. So there is sometimes outrage on social media and a lot of unsatisfied people.

One challenging aspect of the job is during cases that are covered extensively by the media. Hayley says that while her work is based entirely on evidence rather than public opinion, the RSPCA is also a charity and relies on public support. This means that there must be consideration given to managing people’s expectations.

“People take animals very seriously, as they should, and are very passionate about them. So there is sometimes outrage on social media and a lot of unsatisfied people."

“We can’t allow the public to influence our decisions though, which are made firmly in accordance with the code for Crown Prosecutors, on the evidential and public interest test, and we apply those fairly, appropriately, and objectively.”

It’s little surprise that Hayley’s hobbies outside of her demanding job are of the relaxing variety. She’s a keen gardener, enjoys painting and yoga, and loves to walk her cocker spaniel Wilfie, who was rescued from the horrible conditions of a puppy farm.

With over three decades of legal work behind her, Hayley looks back fondly on her years at the University of Wolverhampton.

“It was a wonderful period of time. There were some great lectures, and I am forever grateful that it gave me the springboard into the interesting career in the law I have had.”