Racing: Number up for punter

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The Independent Online
GEO AKINS, one of Britain's largest independent bookmakers, has resigned from IBAS, the betting industry's arbitration service, rather than abide by its ruling in a case brought by an aggrieved punter. The firm's refusal to pay pounds 2,000 in winnings, despite being ordered to do so, highlights the continuing absence of any statutory consumer protection in an industry with an annual turnover of pounds 5 billion.

Akins operates 63 betting shops, principally in the Nottingham area. The firm's dispute with Betty Ward, a regular punter with his organisation, concerned a bet on the Irish National Lottery. Ward claimed to have staked pounds 1 on four numbers, 7, 10, 37 and 41, a combination she had chosen several times previously since they co-incided with the ages and birthdays of family members.

All four numbers were successful, which Ward believed entitled her to a payout of pounds 4,096. When she tried to claim her winnings, however, Akins refused to pay, on the basis that the "37" on her betting slip was in fact a "38". The dispute was referred to IBAS, of which Akins was a registered member, for arbitration.

IBAS, which has been in existence for almost 12 months, is the first worthwhile attempt to provide independent, impartial rulings in disputes between bookies and punters. Judgements are made by a panel of experts with long experience of the betting industry. Approximately 7,300, or 85 per cent, of the country's betting shops are members of the scheme, and bookmakers who apply to join agree to be bound by IBAS's findings.

Akins's contention was that the disputed number was illegible, which according to the firm's rules, meant it should be treated as a non-runner. IBAS, however, disagreed. Its panel ruled that rather than being illegible, it was merely ambiguous, and could be read as either 37 or 38. As a result, they ordered that Mrs Ward should be paid at the full odds to half her stake, as is the case when a punter backs a horse involved in a dead-heat. Akins was therefore instructed to pay Mrs Ward pounds 2,048.

The bookie, however, refused to comply. Under IBAS rules, this would have led to the firm's suspension from the scheme, and ultimately to expulsion if they still withheld payment. Before they could be thrown out, though, Akins sent a fax to IBAS's office in London saying that they were resigning.

Chris O'Keefe, IBAS's service manager, is prevented by duty of confidentiality from commenting on the specifics of the case. He confirmed yesterday, however, that Akins had withdrawn from the scheme, and that he was "hugely disappointed" by the firm's decision. "We are providing a professional service," he said, "and this is not helpful."

Betty Ward, who chose number 37 because her husband was born in 1937, has been left to rue the bad weather in January, when she placed her bet. "I'd been doing these numbers for over a year, and I've got all the slips to prove it," she said yesterday. "That day was wet, and the slip was damp and I went over it again because I wasn't sure it had gone through."

Mrs Ward has now given up all hope of seeing even her pounds 2,000 award from IBAS, far less the pounds 4,000 she hoped to receive. "I look on it as my pound lost for that week," she says.

Sean Akins, a director of the bookmakers, said yesterday that their action "is not financially motivated. We have paid the disputed money to the Injured Jockeys' Fund. Our judgement is that to accept the ruling would be to fundamentally change a basic principle of the industry, which is that the onus is on the customer to fill in a slip correctly. It is such an important case precedent."

This is of little consolation to Betty Ward, however, who took a case to an organisation of which Akins was a member and then found that there was no legal clout to back up even a partial judgement in her favour. It is to be hoped that the Government, which is planning significant new consumer protection legislation, may correct this situation sooner rather than later.