New body will ensure fair play and keep sport out of court

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The Independent Online
British sport is to set up an independent arbitration panel to keep disputes involving players and athletes out of the law courts.

The move follows increasing concern among the sporting authorities over the costs and damaging publicity of litigation resulting from incidents on the field of play.

In a succession of high-profile actions sports stars have sued administrators for banning them from competition and players have sued opponents for dangerous play.

The Central Council for Physical Recreation (CCPR) said this weekend that an independent Sports Dispute Resolution Panel would be in place by the end of the year.

The move was denounced by some sports lawyers who said it was an attempt to put sport above the law.

Edward Grayson, a barrister and author of Sport and the Law, said: "I regard it as insidious. The law of the land does not stop at the touchline or the boundary."

He added: "The tribunal system could be said to be symbolic of the attempts to conceal the moral corruption in sport and can easily be as costly as going to court."

But Nigel Hook, head of technical services of the CCPR, which represents 286 British sporting and recreational governing bodies including the Football Association, the Rugby Football Union, the British Athletics Federation and the Lawn Tennis Association, said this was not the case.

"Putting sport above the law is not the intention. The purpose is stop the increasing cost and time involved in legal cases in court and the increasing desire of individuals to go to court in this country," he said.

"This will preserve the integrity of sport and make sure that the money stays in sport and does not go to solicitors."

A position paper prepared for the CCPR, and seen by The Independent, states: "If two high-profile competitors are in dispute it could tarnish the image of the sport. Mediation can bring disputes to an end quickly, cheaply and confidentially."

The paper adds: "The principle behind an arbitration panel is that disputes would be decided by people interested in sport and not by a judge who may be indifferent or who may not understand the implications for sport or how sport works." It adds that the independent panel could not prevent police intervention if a criminal offence had been committed.

The clean-cut image of sport is increasingly being soiled by damaging court cases. In 1994, Chelsea's Paul Elliott unsuccessfully sued Dean Saunders of Liverpool for a tackle which ended his career.

A similar case is currently being pursued by Gordon Watson of Bradford City against the Huddersfield Town defender Kevin Gray.

At the same time, players are increasingly less likely to accept the validity of bans imposed by a sports governing body which prevent them from earning a living. Diane Modahl, the middle distance runner, is suing the British Athletics Federation for pounds 500,000 for loss of earnings during a drugs ban that was later overturned.The rugby player Mark Jones has taken the Welsh Rugby Union to the High Court for banning him for fighting in a game, while the suspended tennis stars Mats Wilander and Karel Novacek are fighting the International Tennis Federation in the London courts over its right to test and ban players for drugs.

Mr Hook said that the new panel would be expected to resolve disputes within a month at minimum cost.

The panel will be made up of volunteers with experience and knowledge of both sport and the law. Several prospective panellists have already been identified. The parties involved in a dispute would each appoint one arbitrator from a pool of names provided.

Robert Horner, a solicitor member of the RFU committee, said professionalism meant that bans for thuggery on the field now affected player's livelihoods rather than just their social lives.

He said: "We would be totally supportive of the [independent arbitration panel] concept.

"It is acknowledged that if you can have a sensible arbitration procedure it's likely to be quicker and less expensive than going through the courts."

The idea is modelled partly on the International Court of Arbitration run by the Olympic authorities in Switzerland, and on similar panels in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Some sporting bodies, including the FA, have expressed a wish to retain their own disciplinary procedures, only resorting to the panel as a last resort.

Last night, other sports lawyers said that "in the real world" they would advise their clients to still go to court because of the chances of winning more in compensation.

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