How to claim against an unincorporated amateur sports club in England and Wales
An unincorporated English amateur sports club holds a disciplinary hearing and expels a member for (for example) persistently harassing other members. The member in question is furious; she believes she has been expelled for no good reason and contrary to the club’s constitution. She appeals to the sports club in question, but her appeal is refused.
The question arises – what recourse, if any, does the (ex) member have to the courts of England and Wales?
The Legal Status of the Club
The legal status of the club in this example is an unincorporated association. It is not a legal person, and cannot itself be sued (save for the rare exception where statute provides otherwise).
In relation to third parties, the club (as an unincorporated association) derives its authority (and liability) primarily from the legal rules of agency. Thus, if the club enters into a contract with a third party, the contract may still be enforceable. How it is enforced will depend on what authority the members entering into the contract had from the club. If they had no authority, the contract will be enforceable against them personally. If they did have authority (whether ostensible, actual or implied), the contract will be enforceable against them as co-principals to the contract.1
In relation to its members, the legal relationship is governed by the ordinary rules of contract: the club’s constitution will be construed as a contract between the individual member and the other members.
The Contractual Analysis
The relevance of the contractual analysis is that a member may sue on the contract: she may bring an action for breach of contract against those members of the club whom she alleges have breached its terms (i.e. who have acted in breach of the constitution).
The most obvious example of such a claim is exactly the example we are considering here - where a committee has expelled a member of a club (allegedly) contrary to the terms of its constitution.
So far, so simple: a private law action for breach of contact may, as a matter of principle, be brought before the courts in this jurisdiction for breach of the constitution. But what are the limits of such an action?
Claims for Breach of Contract
The leading case in this area is Lee v. Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain,2 in which Denning LJ (as he then was) examined the question in the context of a trade union (itself an unincorporated association) and concluded as follows (at 341-342):
“the power of this court to intervene is founded on its jurisdiction to protect rights of contract. If a member is expelled by a committee in breach of contract, this court will grant a declaration that their action is ultra vires.”
Any claim for breach of a constitution must properly be framed within this contractual analysis: the disgruntled member must claim for breach of an express or implied term of the constitution and show that the same has caused her loss. The most common claims are:
- Breach of express terms of the constitution – i.e. where a member has been expelled by an improperly constituted committee under the rules (Young v. Ladies’ Imperial3).
- Breach of an implied term to uphold the rules of natural justice in disciplinary proceedings – i.e. where a member has been expelled without notice or any adequate hearing (Lawlor v. Union of Post Office Workers4).
Breach of Express Terms
In the context of express terms, the analysis is straightforward: the court will see that members adhere to the rules of the constitution. If they have not, the court will adjudicate upon the claim for breach of contract as it would in any other context.
Thus, in Young v. Ladies’ Imperial Club Ltd, where a member had been expelled following an improperly convened meeting, the court held that this constituted a breach of contract. Accordingly, the resolution to expel the member was declared ultra vires (i.e. unlawful for the reason that expulsion was beyond the powers permitted under the constitution).
The courts have made it clear that, in the context of disciplinary proceedings, they will not consider findings of fact made by domestic tribunals i.e. amateur club committees. They will only consider questions of law, such as whether the constitution was adhered to – including questions of construction concerning the constitution itself (Lee v. Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain; Barker v. Jones5).
Further, it is clear that clubs may not oust the court’s jurisdiction by purporting to exclude it under the terms of the constitution (Enderby Town Football Club Ltd v. Football Association Ltd6):
- In Enderby, the club had been fined by an FA affiliated county association. The club appealed against the fine, first to the FA and then through the courts. The FA’s rules at the time excluded legal representation for the club (with certain limited exceptions), and provided that legal proceedings could not be brought without the consent of the FA.
- The club challenged these rules through the courts. The challenge to the rule excluding legal representation failed. The challenge to the rule providing that proceedings could not be brought without the consent of the FA succeeded in the Court of Appeal.
- In a typically forthright dictum, Lord Denning MR, stated unequivocally that “if [governing body regulations] seek to oust the jurisdiction of the court, they are invalid”. Accordingly, the FA rule preventing the club from bringing an action in the courts without the FA’s consent was “plainly invalid” as it sought to oust the jurisdiction of the court.
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- Tags: Amateur Sport | Contract Law | Dispute Resolution | England | United Kingdom (UK) | Wales
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William is a barrister specialising in civil and commercial law at 2 Temple Gardens (see https://www.2tg.co.uk/barristers/profile/william-clerk). He is rapidly developing a busy sports practice with a strong focus on the commercial, disciplinary, and regulatory aspects of sports disputes across all major sports. He is frequently instructed to advise on the interpretation and application of sports bodies’ regulations.
Thank you William. This article has already helped me progress a dispute with my club however I have a supplementary question. If the legal status of a club is an unincorporated association and the National Governing body is a company limited by guarantee, what is the legal status of the intermediate levels of the hierarchy? eg County (responsible for a number of clubs) and Region (Responsible for several Counties). Thank you.
Lewis, I’m glad to hear the article has been of interest and use. In answer to your question, I’m afraid it’s not possible to give a definitive answer given each case will depend on its specific facts. NGBs, counties and regions (and the interplay between them) can be structured very differently between sports. However, the first question to consider will be whether the County or Region referred to is in fact an independent legal body, independent from the relevant NGB or whether it is simply an administrative arm of the NGB itself with no independent legal status. If it is an independent legal body, the second question will be what is its legal status– and will be answered according to ordinary principles of English law (if, of course, the County or Association is within the jurisdiction).
Thanks William. My enquiries to date suggest that both intermediate levels have the same status as a club and are considering changing their legal status. My club, which had blatantly ignored the constitution backed off immediately thanks to your article, and revoked my expulsion, but that had been in place for a year. My dispute is at Regional level, as a panel appointed by Region failed to uphold my complaint against the club despite overwhelming evidence, including a written admission by the club that they had not followed the correct procedures. My option now seems to be to take legal action against the Regional Executive or their appointed panel which never contacted me even once.
In case it is of interest to others I am including an indemnity clause from the County Constitution. Assuming that County is an Unincorporated Association, I doubt this has any validity.
Every person approved to make decisions on behalf of the Association shall be entitled to be indemnified out of the assets of the Association against all losses or liability which they may incur in or about the execution of their office or otherwise in relation thereto; and no Committee Members or others approved to make decisions shall be liable for any loss, damage or misfortune which may happen to or be incurred by the Association in the execution of the duties or their office or in relation thereto; provided that nothing in this clause shall affect their liability or the consequences of any deliberate, negligent or otherwise unlawful act on their part.