THE trial of National Gipsy Council president Hughie Smith and his nephew, Charlie Smith - who were charged after police were called to a Knaresborough travellers' site - has been dramatically halted amid criticism of the way in which North Yorkshire Police handled the case.

Hughie Smith, 73, denied an allegation of using threatening behaviour, causing site resident Peter Varey to fear violence would be used against him, during the trial at Harrogate magistrates court.

Charlie Smith, 37, pleaded not guilty to an assault on Mr Varey's son, James, 26.

The prosecution alleged the younger Mr Smith butted James Varey and claimed that Hughie Smith had threatened to "burn out" the Varey family.

Hughie acts as warden at the site at Thistle Hill, Knaresborough, with his nephew operating as manager there. They both live on a travellers' site at Springs Lane, Bickerton, near Wetherby.

Yesterday, after a morning of behind-the-scenes activity and legal argument, prosecutor Kate Hunter-Gordon told the court her new instructions were to offer no evidence against the Smiths and to seek dismissal of the charges against them.

''There is in my view no realistic prospect of a conviction,'' she said. ''I offer no evidence at this stage and invite you to dismiss the case.''

The move came after talks between Miss Hunter-Gordon and defence solicitor John Batchelor over the absence of photographs of injuries said to have been sustained by James Varey in the alleged attack, and claims that there had been an abuse of process.

Presiding magistrate John Carter had suggested two police officers might need to be brought to court to explain ''a suspicion of manipulation'' and Miss Hunter-Gordon then sought a short adjournment.

When the court reconvened she said the prosecution wanted to drop the charges.

Mr Carter told the Smiths that dismissal meant their exemplary characters were maintained.

Mr Carter said police involvement ''or lack of it'' had put the case in jeopardy and the Bench would urge the Crown Prosecution Service to take whatever action was necessary.

Outside the court, the Smiths said they were relieved their ordeal was over, but had been confident of success if the trial had run its course.

Hughie Smith said: ''I was surprised it came to court because the allegations were totally false. It was a frame-up right from the start. I am pleased our names have been cleared.''

The pair had gone to the site to do their jobs, part of which was to evict families who were there illegally, and had been faced with intimidation and threats.

Hughie Smith said he would be making a formal complaint against the police for their handling of the case and his solicitors would also be taking action.

When asked to comment today, a North Yorkshire Police spokesman said: "We are waiting for details from the court."

He said the force had not received a formal complaint about its handling of the case, but if one was received it would be examined.

Updated: 10:46 Wednesday, April 16, 2003