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UNDERSTAND THE RULES OF THE GAME

A guide to England’s Independent Football Ombudsman

Published 15 April 2015 | Authored by: Marc Delehanty

Alternative forms of dispute resolution continue to grow in popularity generally and sport is no different. One such example is that of the Independent Football Ombudsman (“IFO”).1

The IFO offers a form of non-binding arbitration for individuals with complaints against football clubs playing in the Premier League, The Football League and all those affiliated to The FA, and can be engaged after internal club and relevant governing body (i.e. The FA, Premier League, or The Football League) procedures have been exhausted. It also handles complaints made against the governing bodies themselves.

The current Ombudsman is Professor Derek Fraser and the deputy is Mr Alan Watson. They are supported in their work by an advisory panel made up of those with experience of relevant legal issues, corporate governance, media & communications, supporters’ issues and community issues. The IFO has been operating in its current guise, under terms of reference agreed between various stakeholders,2 since the 2008-09 football season.

 

The nature of the IFO process

The complaints brought before the IFO have covered a wide range of issues, such as ticketing problems, ejections from stadiums, and use of force by stewards. Many of these disputes are not of significant financial value. As a result, the IFO process is attractive because it offers a means of resolution of such disputes without recourse to civil litigation, which would be time consuming, expensive and place the parties, in particular fans, at risk of an adverse costs order. By contrast, the service offered by the IFO is free of charge. (The running costs of the IFO service are met by an annual grant from The FA, the Premier League and The Football League.3)

The IFO procedure is informal. That means formal hearings are dispensed with, with the IFO’s focus instead being on meeting with the complainant and club or league bodies, as appropriate in the circumstances.

A key feature of the IFO’s role is such that it can (in a way that a civil court cannot) use its adjudications to recommend that a written apology be offered to a fan or, while recognising a club had grounds to sanction a fan, recommend that a lesser sanction should be imposed.

The IFO publishes all of its adjudications on its website4 and, insofar as they detail the handling of complaints by clubs before the IFO got involved, they are an invaluable resource providing guidance on what to do (or, more often, what not to do) for anyone engaged in the early stage of resolution of disputes involving football fans.

For example, it is apparent from the IFO adjudications that a key concern is that supporters are treated with respect by the clubs who deal with their complaints – in many of the cases where the IFO has found against the supporter as regards the substance of a dispute, the IFO has also made findings criticising communications failures on the part of the club, in order to improve practices and processes.5

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About the Author

Marc Delehanty

Marc Delehanty

Marc is a barrister at Littleton Chambers, called to the Bar following First Class degrees in Mathematics and Law. His practice areas (commercial, employment and administrative law) encompass the broad range of disputes that arise in a sporting context. The Legal 500 2014 directory rates Marc as one of the leading junior barristers in the country for Sports Law, describing him as "highly regarded in this area”.

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