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Moving the goal posts

15th December 2022

The Introduction of the First Supporter Sanctioning Guidance

On 9 December 2022, the English Football League (EFL) unveiled a Supporter Sanctioning Guidance document to assist its 72 clubs in managing the behaviour of a small number of individuals which presented a challenge for club officials. In spring 2022, the EFL commissioned Dr. Ashley J. Lowerson, Assistant Professor at Northumbria University, an expert in football-related law and whose PhD specifically recommended a change to the management of spectators by clubs, and Amanda Jacks, Case Worker with the Football Supporters’ Association to produce the Supporter Sanctioning Guidance. The comprehensive guidance document provides a standardised sanctioning procedure to help football clubs with the management of incidents that have breached ground regulations and/or the ticketing terms and conditions.

The management of football spectators has for many years been deemed a problematic area for Parliament, the courts, the police and football clubs. In 1926, after the first government-commissioned report into the management of football crowds, it was noted that the ‘joint committees of the local police, the supporters’ clubs and the club management at a local level should determine how to resolve issues of spectator misbehaviour’. Fast forward sixty-three years to the introduction of the Football Spectators Act in 1989, the Government responded by introducing Football Banning Orders. Although these civil preventative measures have proven useful in tackling some football-related criminal behaviour, breaches of the stadium ground regulations and/or the ticketing terms and conditions have been left to the management of the football clubs.

Home Office data for the 2021-22 football season highlighted an increase in disorder at matches across England and Wales, approximately 59% higher than in the 2018-19 season. The data is specific to football-related offences and not all breaches of the ground regulations and/or ticketing terms and conditions will be included within the dataset. Those breaches will not be relative to the Orders housed in the Football Spectators Act 1989 or be managed by any individual processes adopted by football clubs. The default position or process adopted by a club is to prohibit an individual from entering the premises, namely a ‘club ban’. Bob Eastwood, Head of Security and Safety Operations at the EFL stated:

“Following the return of fans, after the disruption caused by the COVID pandemic, the behaviour of some supporters has been placed under the microscope, which has prompted questions about how the football authorities deal with these incidents that are in contravention of ticketing terms and conditions or ground regulations.”

Only a small number of football clubs have documented information concerning ‘club bans’ through their websites. Although the information provided is detailed in parts, the level of information is still deficient in outlining the key factors of the club ban procedure and the scope of the ticketing terms and conditions. Most football clubs have failed to provide any outline regarding the full purpose and scope of the procedure and sanctions that can be served on spectators. More importantly, most football clubs have failed to provide policies that outline an effective appeals process. The Supporter Sanctioning Guidance aims to eradicate these inconsistent approaches by creating a standardised procedure that can be utilised by all 72 football league clubs.

Co-author of the Guidance, Amanda Jacks states:

“[The Sanctioning Guidance] will help football clubs tackle behaviour in a holistic way and also give supporters the opportunity to go through a due process if they suspect them of wrongdoing…they are a football club, not a courtroom and they have no legal obligation to put them through a due process but I think they have a very strong moral obligation.”

Introducing guidance that is closely aligned with the rules of natural justice will move clubs away from issuing bans in every circumstance and rebalance the rights of spectators and those of the football club to secure a more proportionate outcome on a case-by-case basis.  Although it will always be the right of the football club to prohibit entry into the stadium and/or premises, this guidance offers alternative solutions focusing on education programmes and restorative justice. The adoption of a process that is autonomous yet encapsulates proportionality and fairness is key to football clubs moving forward so we can all enjoy the beautiful game.

A copy of the EFL Supporter Sanctioning Guidance can be viewed here.

Dr. Ashley J. Lowerson, Assistant Professor, Northumbria University





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