Interview with Matthieu Reeb, Secretary General of the Court of Arbitration for Sport - Episode 22

Published 04 September 2014 By: Sean Cottrell

Matthieu Reeb at the Court of Arbitration for Sport

In our first episode back after a short break, Matthieu Reeb, Secretary General of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), talks to Sean Cottrell, about the structures and processes of the CAS, the CAS pro bono services, offers his opinion on what it takes to be a good sports lawyer and CAS arbitrator and talks about his own journey into sports law and what the future holds for CAS and much more.




SC: I’m here in Lausanne with Matthieu Reeb from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). He has kindly agreed to meet with me to discuss a little bit about the structures and processes of CAS and tell us about his background and how he became a sports lawyer. Matthieu, thank you for joining me today and taking the time out of your busy schedule.

MR: Thank you, good morning.

"We have 300 arbitrators...from more than 80 countries around the world"

SC: I thought, to start off with, people hear, particularly given some of the instances that have happened at the World Cup, a lot about the CAS in the press. Sometimes they don’t really go into detail about the structure of the CAS and the processes that are involved. I was wondering if you could give a brief overview of the general structures of the CAS, some of the processes and about the type of cases that you will hear here.

MR: To start with, the structure of CAS is composed of two bodies or two organs. The first is the governing body, which is the International Council of Arbitration for Sport, abbreviated to the ICAS. It is composed of 20 persons and these people do not decide cases, they manage the administration and financing of the CAS. The CAS is more of a brand than a real person or entity. It is in fact a composition of all the arbitrators plus the court office, which provides parties (athletes, federations, clubs and so on) a service in order to solve sports-related disputes. In a short, ICAS and CAS are the two bodies composing the structure of CAS.

SC: How many arbitrators are there?

MR: We have 300 arbitrators, more or less, coming from more than 80 countries around the world. They mostly come from Europe, because we have more business in Europe than in the rest of the world but we also have a certain number of arbitrators in Northern America, Australia, South America (more than before), and also Africa and Asia. The majority of the arbitrators are based in Europe and the majority of arbitrators selected by parties are also from Europe.

"The goal is that they are interested in sports, that they know about sports law arbitration"

SC: What is the general profile for a CAS arbitrator?

MR: You have to be a lawyer – you have to have a degree in law. We ask arbitrators to be practitioners – counsel, lawyers, practicing lawyers. They can also be judges or law professors. The goal is that they are interested in sports, that they know about sports law and that they know about international arbitration. We don’t expect that everybody is an expert in both international arbitration and sports law but at least one of the two criteria should be met. The other should be developed through the career.

SC: You mention that you have arbitrators from all over the world and you hear cases from around the world. The headquarters are based here in Lausanne, but you also have decentralised offices and also an ad hoc division. I was wondering if you could explain how that is structured?

MR: The headquarters are in Lausanne. This is the seat of all arbitrations in the world, even if they are heard physically in a different city. The legal seat remains Lausanne, Switzerland. This is important because it is also the reason why all appeals against CAS decisions/awards can be filed at the Swiss Federal Tribunal, which is the highest instance in, our country, Switzerland. Now we also have two decentralised offices – one in Sydney, Australia and one in New York. These are administrative branches where applications/requests can be filed.

In Australia, they are managed by some staff, which are trained for that. They can follow the cases and the procedures and can conduct the arbitrations together with the arbitrators in Australia or Oceania. We also have alternative hearing centres, which are not exactly the same as the decentralised court office but they are a partnership that we have signed with different cities in the world, like Abu Dhabi, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur. These partnerships allow us to use services and venues where we can hear cases. We can also have meetings and seminars there. We try to encourage also and promote sports arbitration in these regions.

"We have a lot of places where professional sport has developed...that need arbitration services."

SC: So, having these decentralised and other venues that you can use, what benefit does that offer? Also, what is your objective, because I know you have been doing a lot of outreach and training programmes? What is the purpose of that and where does that fit into a bigger plan?

MR: Well you can guess the answer because as I said, most of our activity basically starts from and is developed in Europe, but professional sports now is moving everywhere – India, Japan, China, of course Australia and New Zealand. We have a lot of places where professional sport has developed and also where legal issues can arise and that need arbitration services. The goal is to inform and promote our services and sports arbitration generally in these places. At the moment we do have some transnational cases between, for example, China and another country in Europe or the Middle East with also another country in Europe. We have a mix of various countries involved in litigation in CAS procedures. But we could have, in the future, more regional disputes between two countries in the Middle East or two countries in the Far East and this is where, probably, our decentralised offices and alternative hearing centres would become more and more useful.

"We do have links and contacts with US sports"

SC: You’ve got an office in New York. What would you say is the opportunity or challenge in relation to what CAS is doing and the American market?

MR: We do have links and contacts with US sports. We know that they have their own organisation and their own procedures. We can offer our services, we can explain to and inform these entities more and more. We believe, like in other sports, maybe some day they could be an interest for our business because we provide a totally independent service and independent decisions. It is really a neutral process and I know that for certain sports in the USA, it is not exactly the same kind of procedure with involvement of the commissioner or collective bargaining agreements having been signed between players and owners. Also, it is probably difficult in a very short time to change a system. We think that there could be a need or an interest in the future and without being too optimistic at the moment, we think that, perhaps, there is something to create maybe with a more American structure than now because we are really European, based in Switzerland, with a final appeal before the Swiss Federal Tribunal, which may sound a little strange for participants in US sports. There is something to do – there is a challenge here. I think we can offer certainly a system which would be helpful and interesting for players and owners in the USA.

"There is an expression that we used for the first ad-hoc division of the CAS...fair, fast and free"

SC: That is interesting – I would like to see how that develops having been at the Sports Lawyers Association [conference in Chicago]. I know you were out there speaking; there does seem to be a sea of change in American sport and I think, coming back to the answer you gave to the first question that sport is globalising, that brings new challenges and new opportunities. The sports lawyers, who are our listeners and readers, will know the answer to this question already. For those people who are less familiar with sports law, what does arbitration offer as a process for sports disputes? Why is it beneficial, utilised and important?

MR: There is an expression that we used for the first ad-hoc division of the CAS which we used at the Olympic Games in 1996 in Atlanta. It was ‘fair, fast and free’. Fair, fast, free – I think these three words are correct, even if for the financial participation of the parties it’s no longer free for every kind of procedure. It’s still free for disciplinary matters of an international nature. It means that an athlete can file an appeal and would have to pay only the filing fee of 1000 CHF, but nothing else. He/she would have to pay his/her own legal costs and, if this person wins the procedure in the end, may get some compensation, decided by the CAS arbitrators, from the other party. These parties would have no arbitration costs to pay, which is important to facilitate access to justice.

For commercial and contractual disputes, nowadays, we request the parties to contribute to the arbitration cost. It’s only for the services of the panel, not the overall cost, so it is the minimum we can ask the parties to pay in order not to block a procedure for financial reasons.

Arbitration is different from civil law procedure because the parties – which could be an athlete, clubs, federation – involved in the dispute before CAS have the right to select an arbitrator (a judge) of their choice from our list of arbitrators, which is mandatory. The list is mandatory but the choice is quite large, with, as I said, almost 300 arbitrators on the list. This is important because it means that the parties can also have an inference on the constitution of the panel. The president of the panel would be appointed either by the first two arbitrators or by CAS, depending on the procedure, but the court arbitrators are always consulted before the president of the panel is appointed. The important thing is that these arbitrators, this panel, must be independent from the parties. A party could not select an arbitrator which maybe was in connection with the lawyer of that party or member of the same firm and so on. There is a control here, which is very important because if we do not control the independence of arbitrators, the final decision of CAS can be challenged and annulled before the Swiss Supreme Court. There is a procedure for challenge against arbitrators. If the other party has doubts about the nomination of an arbitrator, this party can raise objections and there is a small internal procedure, which is conducted by the ICAS, not the CAS. This is a separate organisation.

If I can also mention the ‘fast’, because this is also important to remember. Our procedures are calibrated to allow parties to get decisions on time – when it’s useful – not after two or three years when everybody has forgotten the result of a competition or that an athlete was suspended for two years for nothing because he was not guilty. It is very important that CAS can still offer an efficient procedure, a quick procedure, which will allow parties and particular athletes to know about their fate, because if they need to know if they can be eligible to participate in World Championships or Olympic Games, they cannot wait for years, they need the decision quickly. We have different means for that. We can order interim measures, we can impose expedited procedure in order to have a short procedure calendar or we can simply deliver the decision without the grounds if there is an urgency to know just the result and the grounds can be delivered a little bit later. That’s very important – we have examples but I don’t know if we have time to talk about that. If the parties can tell us when they need a decision, we would calculate the procedural calendar in accordance with that wish.

SC: What would be the quickest time that you have turned a case around? So, got a panel together, appointed the arbitrators, got the pleadings from both parties and then issued a decision.

MR: I think the quickest full, normal procedure was 3½ weeks (19 days), something like that, which was the case of the Brazilian swimmer César Cielo. He was found positive with a substance, which is a parent of Ephedrine and/or caffeine. The origin of that substance was not very clear and the athlete said it was contamination of a product he was using. We were just weeks before the World Championship in Shanghai in 2011. Everybody, athletes plus FINA (the Swimming Federation), wanted a decision before the beginning of the World Championship. So, we had to organise a very short timeframe for the exchange of written statements plus a hearing in Shanghai just three days before the start of the competition, and the decision would have come two days after the hearing. We had a full panel – three arbitrators, an exchange of written submissions, oral hearing and decision in writing – 3-4 weeks is feasible but it’s a hard time for the arbitrators and they need to work very hard.

"we have a system of legal aid. It is a legal aid fund that we have put in place for those athletes..."

SC: And the Ad-Hoc division?

MR: That’s a good question. When I was talking about Cielo case, it’s the normal procedure of CAS, which can be expedited, but we also have these ad-hoc divisions that are appointed on the occasion of Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games or Asian Games later this year. This is a group of arbitrators who are available in the Olympic city. For example in Sochi winter games we had 9 arbitrators available for any types of dispute which would be submitted to CAS and the procedure there would last only 24 hours, or 48 hours depending on the urgency, but 24 hours is something we can do. Arbitrators are available and they are ready. All parties are normally on the same site, so we can meet quickly and we can have a hearing. We do not exchange written submissions, no paperwork. We limit the administrative work to the minimum and everything is decided at the hearing with witnesses and experts. Everybody, if they can, should come, even also potentially affected parties may attend the hearing and the panel, after the hearing, would deliberate and issue and decision as quick as possible. It is a special procedure only applicable during games times.

SC: I guess that’s the whole point: that it has to be quick and it has to be expedited because of the impact; [if you are an athlete] you don’t get the opportunity again. If you have waited four years to compete at the Olympics, you need that certainty of outcome.

MR: Traditionally, we get selection disputes or qualification disputes and problems regarding quota at the beginning of the games – athletes who want to know if they are selected or not. During the games time or later, we get the first disciplinary cases or even a few field of play cases. Even if, according to our jurisprudence we do not entertain these cases, sometimes we need to know if the rules were totally ignored for example by the federation which would have changed the result of a competition. This is something we can look at. If I can follow up on that, I would add also that we have a system of legal aid. It is a legal aid fund that we have put in place for those athletes, physical persons, who do not have the financial means to proceed before CAS. This legal aid fund would offer that the arbitration cost be paid by CAS and not by the party. If the athlete needs legal representation, we can offer a pro-bono lawyer working for free for this person and if there is any need for reimbursement of costs, like travel and accommodation costs for this person to attend a hearing, we can also provide that.

"If they want to be part of the pro-bono scheme, they should show their interest..."

SC: I think that is one of the best-kept secrets of the CAS. I was speaking to Brent Nowicki [lawyer at CAS] about this and he was telling me about the pro-bono service, and I said “that’s fantastic”, because I get a lot of questions from people who are aspiring sports lawyers or in sports law wanting to help athletes and they are not quite sure how to. They would love to be involved with CAS cases in some way, shape or form. If you were a young lawyer or an experienced lawyer and you were looking to do some sports work, or some pro-bono work with athletes in front of the CAS as part of their practice, how would they go about getting involved or applying?

MR: If they want to be part of the pro-bono scheme, they should show their interest and write to us [CAS]. We would see if we need these pro-bono lawyers, depending on their geographical representation. We don’t, for example, need 20 pro-bono lawyers in Italy or Spain, for example, if we do not use Italian or Spanish as a language for arbitration. Of course, people from Switzerland would be welcome because it’s close to Lausanne, so we limit the costs. We do have pro-bono lawyers from many different countries, including also North America and Australia. The goal is that the athletes can have the benefit of legal assistance without being troubled by financial aspects.

SC: To add to that, there has to be a certain quality. You have to, I presume, be at a certain standard, again meet the requisite criteria [much like] if you, let’s say, wanted to be a CAS arbitrator; you need to understand sport, be a practising lawyer and have experience to be able to help the athletes otherwise they may be disadvantaged. That is really interesting and a great service, and much needed.

What would you say, as an arbitrator, are the key skills you need or traits of a great arbitrator?

MR: The best profile is probably a former athlete or still an active athlete, although I don’t think he/she will have the time. Let’s say a former athlete, with a good knowledge of sport. Not only his own sport but generally sport at large. Plus, of course, a full education in law up to barrister/solicitor/attorney-at-law, and some practice. Perhaps, if this person is also interested in international arbitration it would be perfect. It’s quite rare to have a person doing both international arbitration and sports law professionally. There are a few, but not many. These are rare to find, so they are precious of course. I think the experience of a sports career is certainly a bonus for the arbitrators, to understand the positions of athletes’ federations and so on. It is important to be able to conduct arbitration in French or English, which are both the working languages of CAS. We also offer arbitration in Spanish or other languages like German, Italian or Portuguese when the arbitrators are ready to do that and are capable of rendering an award in this particular language. We also provided an arbitral award in Russian (I think one) and that is it. So far, nothing in Arabic, Chinese or Japanese but, why not? One day, it could be possible if we have enough arbitrators able to work in that language. The only difficulty will be for us, for the CAS court office and for the ICAS members if they want to read the award a translation would be necessary, but that’s feasible.

"For me, the goal was to manage to find a job that could combine both sport and the law"

SC: Coming onto you, then. You are one of the highest profile with one of the most influential jobs within sports law. How did you get into sports law? What is your background? How did you end up as the General Secretary for CAS?

MR: My story starts back to the 1990s. I was a former athlete, 800m and 400m runner. At the end of my career it was rather 200m but I was a pretty good athlete in junior classes but when I got to the elite class after 20 years old, it was more difficult. I was still at the national level but without any hope for an Olympic career. It was easier for me also to move to studies and to continue my work. At the same time, after my athletic career, I practiced rugby in Switzerland that was also an interesting development for me. Rugby in Switzerland is not so famous – it is rather played in the West part of Switzerland, in the French part, with a few teams in Zurich, Bern and Basel. The level is moderate but I liked this collective sport very much and it was good fun.

My interest in sport is great. I follow sport everywhere, any kind of sports activities, winter sports, all kinds of sports. That is for another programme maybe! For me, the goal was to manage to find a job that could combine both sport and the law, because I was interested also in law. I studied law at the University of Neuchâtel and after that I realised that CAS existed. It was in 1995 and I tried to get in touch with the CAS people at that time and, like always in these kinds of situation, when you come at the right time, you are lucky and you can get a chance to do something. It was the case when I contacted the former Secretary-General Jean-Philippe Rochat. He was interested to have a counsel/assistant/clerk for doing some preparation of drafts, documentation, rules and I started first with training of one month and it was extended to four months, then six months and finally I was hired with a real contract for one year, which was repeated. I started from 1995 with a short-term contract, which was finally confirmed with a normal contract of undetermined duration. I was a counsel, so I was in charge of managing the cases with the arbitrators and the lawyers of the parties, like we do have here, the system where the counsels follow each case in order to make sure that the procedure is complied with, that the time limits are respected, that the case is followed carefully by the arbitrators etc. My job changed in 2000, where I was proposed to be the new Secretary-General of CAS. Because of the increased activity, the former Secretary-General could not accept to continue and it was a part-time job at the time. It became a full-time job when I started in 2000. We were three employees at that time in 1999 and suddenly we had so many cases coming up with football recognising the jurisdiction of CAS and all Olympic sports using the CAS services. We went from 40-50 cases a year up to 100-200 per year in 2003. The life here has changed totally. I had to recruit new people, we had to move to another place, a bigger place and, step-by-step, we continued the development and the evolution of CAS.

"It’s a new record: we have registered 407 cases"

SC: How many cases in the last year?

MR: It’s a new record: we have registered 407 cases. It is more than a case per day. They don’t all come in the end with a full procedure. Some cases would be settled before the end, because the parties can find arrangements/settlements, or because the parties do not pay any costs that we cannot cover for the arbitrators and the procedure would stop. 400 cases is the new record and we expect that there is an increase of 5% every year now.

"it’s important to be visible in seminars, conferences...In the end, it’s like in every sport: only the result counts"

SC: That’s great. The more cases you hear, the more we have to write about. That’s good for us! From your experience, it seems to be common from the people I have interviewed, over the last few years in particular, that taking opportunities when they arise and being proactive about seeking work in sports law and actually taking that step seems to be one of the key reasons, with a lot of hard work and ability, the reason why you have managed to be successful in sports law. If you could give people advice, on steps to take for aspiring sports lawyers at any level, what would it be?

MR: It is hard to give advice [for sports lawyers] because this depends on the country, on the kind of clientele/clients you have. At the same time, it is a small world and something which potentially is quite big. To find the right place is not easy. When I see colleagues, lawyers starting a law firm specialised in sports law, sometimes it can work very well if you have a few good cases in the beginning and make some publicity and then suddenly you have, we say in French, a ‘filons’, which means that it brings another case, followed by another one and so on. Word-of-mouth would also helps a lot in certain areas and in certain sports. Sometimes you don’t know why one is successful and the other one is not, although they have the same kind of competences and education. It is a matter of self-promotion; I think it’s important to be visible in seminars, conferences and so on. In the end, it’s like in every sport: only the result counts. If you are a good lawyer, there will be people knowing that and they will come back to you.

SC: I understand in September, the CAS are holding a conference here in Switzerland. Could you tell me a bit about that: who you expect to attend, what are going to be the topics which are going to be discussed?

MR: It will be the 5-6 September at the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne. We organise this seminar every two years together with the Swiss Bar Association and we try to cover the main topics that we used to, mainly the procedure, some jurisprudence in doping and jurisprudence in football. We try to cover recent development of sports law, including for example the World Anti-Doping Code new version 2015. I think it is also a good opportunity for sports lawyers to meet and to make some promotion. It is a very nice event and I don’t know when this programme will be broadcasted but, at this time, we have only 10-15 seats available. It’s a big success. Almost 300 seats have been sold and we have only a few left. It’s a big success and everybody must be quick to register before the end.

SC: Fantastic, thank you very much for your time.

MR: You’re welcome.


A special thank you to Adam Beach for transcribing the interview. 



Related Articles


Sean Cottrell

Sean Cottrell

Sean is the founder and CEO of LawInSport. Founded in 2010, LawInSport has become the "go to sports law website" for sports lawyers and sports executives across the world.

  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.