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Legal expenses insurance for refusals or revocations – A SACS perspective

SACS is a not for profit membership organisation. It represents members’ interests in policy areas such as shooting laws, wildlife management, firearms licensing, etc. It is a voice which is heard. It also seeks out best value for its members. And when challenges arise in respect of firearms licensing, it provides a highly competent advocacy service in an effort to resolve challenges. All for £43 a year per member at most. It is a lean, efficient and member-focused organisation, where the small numbers of friendly and experienced staff work hard to serve their members’ interests.

Legal expenses insurance for refusals or revocations – A SACS perspective

There have been a number of queries in recent days in respect of whether SACS offers insurance in relation to legal expenses for those who are revoked or refused a certificate. The insurance provided by SACS is substantial in respect of public and employers liability; it provides cover for a wide range of shooting and country sports activities, including legal costs for claims, even if the claim against a member is spurious, which in the current claims culture can be common. Details are available on the SACS website. The policy does not cover you for legal expenses in appealing the Chief Constable’s decision in respect of refusal or revocation of a firearms certificate. We will explain why.

Rights versus privilege

The vast majority of certificate holders are law abiding sensible people who easily pass the requisite tests set out in the Firearms Act 1968 and, if that is the case, the Chief Constable is statutorily obliged to issue the relevant certificate.

It is not a privilege to be issued with a certificate to possess guns; in the UK it is a qualified right. If you can meet the criteria the CC is obliged to issue the certificate. The privilege comes in holding onto the valuable certificate, given the trust placed in you to continue to be responsible and safe.

As a certificate holder you hold a privileged position; having passed the relevant ‘tests’, you are allowed to possess guns whereas the general population is not. About 1% of the UK population hold such certificates. The minority of certificates, likely about 1% or less of that 1% of the whole population, undergo suitability reviews where something has happened which has caused the police to have some concern. That may include the seizure of guns; however, looking at the actual numbers, a suitability review will rarely result in a revocation. In our experience, the circumstances of a suitability review can fall in general categories: criminality, association with criminality, ill health, insecurity of guns and good reason.

The vast majority of certificate holders do not come to the negative attention of the police, though many members will require the services of SACS on a multitude of licensing matters. For those that do have a substantial licensing challenge, the matters are for the greater part able to be dealt with by the application of appropriate advice, experience, letter-drafting, negotiation or other wide-ranging advocacy – matters which, and based on genuine feedback, SACS excels at.

Refusals and revocations

As a consequence of a serious matter, if you are revoked or refused in mainland GB (Northern Ireland has a different appeals process) you have a right to appeal the decision of the Chief Constable, which will be heard in a Court. A solicitor is usually required to represent the appellant in the appeal. These highly trained, bright people do not come cheap and an appeal can cost many thousands of pounds to conduct - at times into five figures.

Further, if the appeal is lost you will likely be liable for the police costs in defending themselves and it is not usual for the police to pay the costs of the appellant if they lose. The Courts have previously decided that as the Chief Constable has a statutory duty to make a decision in respect of firearms licensing, and that the decisions revolve around public safety, decisions made by the police should not be influenced by cost. In essence, it is expensive and, in our experience, in many circumstances not a generally worthwhile advocacy process.

Importantly, the number of appeals within the 1% of certificate holders undergoing suitability revew at any one time is small in comparison to the number of eventual revocations. There are a number of reasons for this, including increased use of ‘full disclosure’ refusal or revocation letters where the police explain their rationale and clearly list their reasons including any relevant prior history. This approach allows SACS and any legal teams to be better-sighted on facts and therefore chances of a successful appeal or other advocacy.

It is also our experience that appeals can be withdrawn when legal teams who are lacking an initial full disclosure letter, later become aware of material facts. Also, before issuing refusal or revocation letters in less straightforward cases, many police forces now involve their in-house legal teams to ensure that what is being proposed is both appropriate and defendable in court should an appeal be made.

Legal fees insurance

In respect of legal fees insurance for revocations and refusals, insurance companies have no driver other than a wish to see a policy underused, or in circumstances where it is used, to use lowest available cost options. Insurers operate on a substantially greater than average chance of success threshold right up until a court date, which may result in an appeal being withdrawn at the last minute as new information comes to light.

Unlike SACS, which remains steadfastly non-commercial, insurers operate on a profit-oriented basis; simply put, their fees for providing insurance cover will be based upon what they expect to profit, against what they pay out and, what they pay out they may attempt to recover in future premiums.

As one of the first bodies to develop such a policy, SACS previously tried the route of legal fees insurance cover for refusals and revocations, however within a few years the premium became untenable. For those very few members who made use of the legal fees insurance - often as a consequence of criminal matters of their own doing - the policy became so difficult that it became unworkable.

When measured against the benefit for all members, including a need to double overall membership fees just to keep the policy going to benefit a very few persons, the cost to the wider membership was inequitable and the policy was concluded a number of years ago.

By the end we were simply not using the legal fees policy as the late-reactive process often made matters worse for members. The majority of issues were ultimately resolved by someone from the SACS team with extensive relevant knowledge and good contacts advocating a positive outcome directly with the police - and often before a refusal or revocation letter was even drafted.

The best licensing results most often come from proactive engagement before a final police decision, yet a legal fees policy can only react after a final and legally binding decision has been taken. In our experience, a competent in-house advocacy team can achieve more, quicker and better.

Firearms licensing advocacy

As many members know from first-hand experience, SACS has a professional in-house team which engages in effective firearms licensing advocacy. This includes speaking with members, hearing their concerns and either explaining the legislation, or picking up the phone and speaking with the relevant police firearms licensing department or employing a number of other well-tested methods to best resolve problems.

More often than not this may result in a positive result, assuming balance of judgement falls in favour of the member and their otherwise responsible behaviour and, of course, that they accept the advice offered. Suffice to say that our licensing work is usually effective for matters not requiring a wand, miracle or time travel.

It depends on the situation, but we always do our utmost for members needing help. It is worth remembering though that we cannot fix the impossible and that is where the privilege lies. Don’t abuse the trust the system relies on – it will often end badly.

A large number of calls to SACS are dealt with monthly. In recent years the calls have increased; less in respect of revocations and refusals with a genuine grievance, but far more queries, requests for advice or intervention and sometimes friendly ‘hand-holding’ during a challenging time e.g. guns taken into safekeeping for a while due to a period of personal turmoil. We choose to work in this personally supportive and empathetic way because we genuinely care.

Some matters are simple and resolved in minutes over the phone - others much more complex and may require weeks or even months of advocacy. Comments like “thanks, you sorted this in five minutes when it had been going on for six months” or “got my certificates, thanks” are common. With our member-focused culture and a dogged determination we will always do our best for members on firearms licensing issues, as well as the multitude of other matters populating our in-trays at any one time.