Racing: Progress for punter in bets case

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A determined punter scores a victory in his long battle with a major bookmaker. Greg Wood reports on a case that has implications for anyone who bets.

Remember Terry O'Callaghan? He is the punter who claimed to have won pounds 259,200 for a pounds 50 football bet with Coral a little over a year ago. Coral, however, refused to pay, saying that the betting slip in question had not been photographed by the security camera in the betting shop where it had been placed.

The Green Seal Service, the arbitration service run by the Sporting Life, backed up the bookmakers and that, it seemed, was that.

But not as far as O'Callaghan was concerned. For the last 14 months, he has waged a relentless campaign against Coral, which has proved, for the most part, fruitless and costly (``I've used almost every penny I have,'' he said yesterday). At one stage, he was even charged with conspiracy to defraud. The charges were dropped for lack of evidence, but the very fact that they had been laid was enough to try to convict him in the minds of many, and media interest in his crusade all but vanished.

Yesterday, though, he finally won a victory, when a judge granted him leave to seek a judicial review of a legal reverse suffered in a Bristol court earlier this year. As a result, the bookmakers may finally be forced to bring into the open the evidence on which they based their decision to refuse to pay.

The merits of O'Callaghan's personal complaint against Coral remain to be seen. What should interest anyone who ever places a bet, though, whether it be on football, racing or the reappearance of Elvis, is the obstacle course he has had to negotiate in the search for a credible, open hearing of his case with all the evidence to hand. It also demonstrates that what few formal procedures there are in betting disputes are overwhelmingly weighted in favour of the bookies.

Punters have often been told that, while gambling debts on either side of the counter are not recoverable in law, they can at least oppose the renewal of a bookmaker's betting permit if they feel they have been wronged. In practice, though, it is clearly unwise, if O'Callaghan's experience is anything to go by.

He went to court in Bristol to oppose the renewal of a Coral permit which covers a group of shops. He wanted to force various Coral witnesses to give evidence, and also to produce the vital security camera film which, according to the bookies, shows that his bet could not have been written out and processed when he claims it was.

The magistrate, though, refused to summon the witnesses, even though O'Callaghan had shown that other courts had done so in similar cases. On the day of the hearing, O'Callaghan was medically unfit to attend, and provided a doctors' certificate to that effect.

The court nevertheless went ahead with the permit hearing in his absence, found in Coral's favour and, to add insult to injury, awarded costs of pounds 5,000 in the bookmaker's favour.

On the basis of this precedent, any punter would clearly be unwise to pursue a similar course of action as the result of a dispute with a bookmaker, and risk potentially ruinous costs. Following yesterday's decision by a judge at the Royal Courts of Justice, though, O'Callaghan should secure a hearing in the New Year, at which it may be determined precisely what a punter can and cannot expect in such cases. The all-important security film could also be produced.

``It could have been all over today if I hadn't won leave to seek a review,'' O'Callaghan said yesterday, ``but now I'm right back in the game and I know I'm going to get an independent and fair hearing. Why should I accept their word that the bet is not on the film? This is the crux of the whole case. If they've got it, why won't they produce it? And it affects everyone, because any punter who has a similar problem and wants to see the film will be able to point to it, because half the time even the courts don't seem to know what they're doing.''

In a statement for Coral yesterday, the firm's solicitor said that the bookmakers ``remain of the view that the merits of the case were correctly decided at first instance''.

The saga of O'Callaghan versus Coral may now come to a final conclusion in February or March of next year. On previous form, however, no-one would bet on it.