Farmers across the country are preparing to take the Government to court if their call for a public inquiry into the foot-and-mouth crisis is refused, it was revealed today.

A letter calling for a public hearing has been sent on their behalf to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett. If the Government refuses to grant a full inquiry, legal proceedings for a judicial review will begin, headed by leading barrister and farmer Richard Lissack QC.

Solicitor Tim Russ said today that a dozen farmers who had suffered in the crisis - from Devon, Cumbria, Northumbria and North Yorkshire - were involved in the initiative and others from Wales were also expected to join in.

Devon-based vet Wendy Vere, who gave evidence to the county's own recent week-long public inquiry into the crisis, was also involved, said Mr Russ. The letter sent to the Secretary of State from Mr Russ' firm, Taunton-based Clarke Willmott and Clarke, pointed out that 2,030 cases of foot-and-mouth were recorded in the world's worst outbreak of the disease. "The general public has a legitimate interest in there being a full inquiry into all aspects of foot-and-mouth.

"The law requires that this legitimate interest be achieved through a thorough and vigorous examination of the issues," the letter stated. The three inquiries the Government had ordered "appear to be neither public nor independent", it went on.

A judge would be consulted about a judicial review if the Government refused to acknowledge the need for a public inquiry as a result of the letter, said Mr Russ.

The letter continued: "Those whom we represent believe it is very important to all concerned that the policy of open government is seen to apply to all areas of government - even ones where the consequence of the application of that policy is embarrassing, perhaps damaging, to ministers." Mr Russ said today they would have to show that by not holding a public inquiry the Government was acting irrationally and illegally, and he expected an interim response from Defra within the next few days.