Inside the FA Disciplinary Committee

A couple of years ago, I spoke to the FA about writing a piece on their disciplinary system for 4-4-2, which would involve me following a case from start to close.  It never happened, but I did receive this useful briefing document from the panel explaining the basic role they hope to fulfil. 

How do you decide what cases go before a hearing?

All cases, across our entire range (on-field, doping, agents, etc are assessed to see if there is sufficient evidence for a charge to be appropriate. This test is whether or not there is a ‘realistic prospect’ that the case will be found proved. This is consistent with other professional regulatory bodies (and the law!) and ensures that cases are not brought on flimsy evidence. It’s very important to have this objective assessment in football, where there are so many partisan views as to what took place in any given incident.

How do you prepare the case legally?

The detail of preparation obviously varies depending on the case, but broadly, all relevant evidence is gathered, then the charge is issued, and then the hearing is prepared for in light of what the person charged says in their response to the charge. The necessary preparation varies tremendously depending on the nature and length of the case eg, it may be a punch on-field that is on video, and so simple to prepare, or a doping control case involving expert witnesses giving evidence on the effect of certain chemicals on the body, how long they remain in the system for etc.

Do players, clubs and managers have legal representation?

Often yes, but this tends to vary with the level (and wealth) of the club.

Is it like a court case, with witnesses, cross examinations etc?

Yes, as with any professional regulation tribunal, it’s very much like a magistrates’ court.

Do you all sit in a room watching replays of the same incident from different angles?

Yes, all relevant evidence is considered, and so if it is an incident caught on video, then all available angles will be looked at.

What sort of evidence is permitted?

The overriding test is always whether the evidence is relevant. The law of the land is also followed. Within those two limits, all types of evidence may be used.

What have been the most difficult cases?

That’s a very difficult one to answer, as cases vary tremendously. Some can be technically difficult (doping, agents cases involving complex transactions) and long. Sometimes you have to ensure that any high profile personalities (or issues where a case has been all over the media) involved do not overshadow the actual issues that need to be focused on, but probably the most difficult are when a person is not legally represented, as then you have a dual role to present the case for the FA but also to assist the other party a great deal to ensure fairness.

Are bigger clubs tougher to deal with than smaller clubs?

Not as a general rule. Dealing with people with no legal representation can sometimes be very difficult and that will often be smaller clubs. Whilst big clubs may use lawyers, this does not necessarily make it tougher – it can help to take the emotion out of it (which is often a big factor) narrow the issues and streamline the case. Many lawyers we deal with approach the cases reasonably. But of course it all depends on how sensible any particular lawyer is.

What are the benefits of the system?

We apply consistent tests to all cases, which aim to ensure that cases are only brought where it is appropriate. We have a small pool of professional (lawyers etc) people dealing with them, which helps consistency.

What are the drawbacks of the system and how could it be improved?

We need to always be aware that we are dealing with a sport, and one that excites tremendous public interest, and so we are always looking to deal with cases quickly in a way that everybody understands. However, the trick is getting the balance right; for simple on-field misbehaviour (eg, a punch caught on video), speed and simplicity is easy, and you can keep legal challenges to a minimum. However, some cases can be quite technical and lead to very involved legal issues. We are always trying to improve our system so all cases are dealt with as appropriately as possible.

Do players and managers bear a grudge?

Probably! One player n his autobiography mentioned wanting to put the lawyer who presented the doping case against him “through the wall”. Thankfully, that’s never happened, but it would be naïve to think some players and managers don’t have similar thoughts – they’re unlikely to be overjoyed with a three match suspension! That said, certainly at the time of the hearings, the vast majority are absolute gents, perfectly polite and take it all very professionally. After all, it is all part of the job…

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