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An overview of how the match-day policing works in English football

Tuesday, 03 May 2016 By Chris Davies

In 1314, Edward II banned football in its rudimentary form for fear that it would cause social unrest. In the intervening 700 years, football has been linked with acts of “disorder” (see below) with the high watermark undoubtedly being the violence between rival “firms" in the 1980s. The risk of disorder has necessitated police presence on match day for many years and a suite of legislation has developed to assist the police in dealing with disorder.

This article examines the role of the police in English football today. It gives recent examples of disorder, explains the legal requirement for match day policing, and examines the match day policing process (including police powers, football specific offences, football banning orders and the cost of policing).

Throughout this article, “disorder” is used as a catch-all term to denote acts of criminal behaviour by supporters at or in connection with football matches unless otherwise stated. “Disorder” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: 

Disturbance, commotion, tumult; esp. a breach of public order, riot, mutiny, outrage”.


Recent examples of disorderly behaviour

The peak of large-scale football related public disorder appears to be behind us. However, it is still rare (if not unprecedented) for a football season to pass by without some level of disorder or the occurrence of ugly incidents. Recent highly publicised examples include:

  • the football banning orders imposed on four supporters of Chelsea Football Club for racially abusing a man on the Paris Metro;1
  • the spike in coin throwing2 including the West Bromwich Albion player, Chris Brunt, being hit in the face by coins thrown by supporters of his own club in February 2016;3 and
  • the pitch-side fighting and disorder outside the stadium at Loftus Road at the Queens Park Rangers v Birmingham City match in February 2016.4

Despite these recent examples, Home Office statistics5 in relation to football related arrests and football banning orders suggests that the situation in English football might be improving.

The latest figures show that there were 2,181 football banning orders (explained below) in force as at 3 September 2014,6 compared with 3,174 as at 29 November 2011,7 representing a drop of 31%.

Football related arrests are also on a steady decline since the 2010/11 season, with the exception of the 2012 to 2013 seasons which recorded a slight increase.8 The statistics show that there were 1,873 football related arrests during the 2014/15 season,9 a reduction of 18% on the previous season and down from the 2010/11 season when football related arrests peaked at 3,089.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, of those arrests “the three most common offence types were public disorder (34%), alcohol offences (22%) and violent disorder (16%)”.10 Whilst the football related disorder statistics are heading in the right direction and, as the Home Office statistics point out, the figures for the 2014/15 season amount to 4.9 football-related arrests per 100,000 attendees11, it is clear that the occasion of a football match still results in disorder.


The legal requirement for police involvement

Before examining football related offences and football banning orders, it is worth examining why the police are required to attend football matches where there is a risk of disorder; and why it is that match day stewards (who may be employees of or contracted to the club) alone cannot oversee proceedings and attend to problems.

The answer is three-fold. First, the police are under a common law duty to keep the peace, prevent the commission of crime and protect property. As Viscount Cave LC said in the leading case of Glasbrook Bros Ltd v Glamorgan County Council:

"No doubt there is an absolute and unconditional obligation binding the police authorities to take all steps which appear to seem to be necessary for keeping the peace, for preventing crime or for protecting property from criminal injury…"12

Accordingly, where a football match represents a risk of disorder, the local constabulary will be under an obligation to attend to fulfil its common law duty.

Secondly, the police have specific powers which can only be exercised by the police13 (as opposed to match-day stewards). These powers include the power of arrest14 and stop and search15 which are invoked by the police in conjunction with their specialist skills, knowledge and operational expertise. The police effectively have a monopoly over the exercise of those powers.

Thirdly, there is a geographical reason why a police presence is required on match day. The club will employ stewards to assist with the match day ingress and egress of supporters into the stadium and to maintain safety inside the stadium.16 The stewards’ powers will be incorporated into the ticketing terms and conditions and typically include a further prohibition on football related offences (see below), an obligation to comply with instructions from a steward and an absolute discretion for club stewards to eject individuals from the stadium.

However, club stewards will only have such powers against supporters within the confines of the stadium – they are essentially contractual in nature. These powers do not extend outside of the private land owned, leased or controlled by the club. The club relies on the police to exercise their powers on third party owned carparks, the public highways and other public land.

In theory and often in reality, the match day safety and policing operation should be one seamless operation. The club and local constabulary typically enter into a Statement of Intent that sets out the respective responsibilities and understanding of the parties in relation to the match day operation.

Typically, the policing operation will be overseen by a match day commander based in a command centre within the stadium (and usually within sight of the pitch and stands).


The match-day policing process

On the basis of the above, it is clear that a football match that poses a risk of disorder will necessitate a police presence both on a practical and legal basis. But how is this presence determined?

General Safety Certificates

The level of risk for each match will be determined in advance. Each stadium will have a Safety Advisory Group. The stadium Safety Advisory Group is a non-statutory advisory entity chaired by the Local Authority that will include the club, the police and local emergency services as members. The Local Authority will receive advice from the Safety Advisory Group as to the risk of disorder and will determine issues relating to the General Safety Certificate. The General Safety Certificate is a legislative requirement (under Section 1, Safety of Sports Ground Act 1975) before football can take place at a designated stadium with a capacity for more than 10,000 spectators.17

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Written by

Chris Davies

Chris Davies

Chris is a commercial litigator in Burges Salmon's dispute resolution team with specialised experience in sports sector disputes. He has advised players, agents, clubs, national and international associations and governing bodies.

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