Lawyer | Human Rights in Sport | Exclusive Jurisdiction of State Courts

1. Introduction

In various cases, state courts may have exclusive jurisdiction, to the exclusion of sports bodies and arbitration tribunals. The most important case concerns the application of criminal law, although other cases are possible.

2. Criminal law

Criminal cases obviously cannot be dealt with by disciplinary bodies or by arbitration tribunals. This does not preclude an organisation from bringing disciplinary proceedings at the same time for the same offence.

Criminal law prosecution and disciplinary prosecution do not have the same aims. Whereas the former takes into account the general interests of morality and society, the latter serves the interests of the group in question (although these interests may coincide with the general interest, for example in the anti-doping and anti-corruption fields) and seeks to maintain standards of behaviour within that group, in its own interests and those of the public.

Criminal and disciplinary offences do not necessarily coincide. While, generally, the criminal offences committed by athletes in a competition also constitute disciplinary offences (for example an ice hockey player who punches an opponent and injures him), the reverse is not true: there are many cases of offences liable to disciplinary action that are not at the same time criminal offences (for example a footballer who pulls back an opposing player by his shirt without injuring him).

Furthermore, a disciplinary punishment can only be applied if the offender is a member of the group in question or has a sufficiently close relationship with it, whereas a criminal sanction can obviously be imposed without any prior condition on any individual who has committed a criminal offence.

The disciplinary action is independent of the criminal action. Where disciplinary and criminal offences coincide, criminal authorities and disciplinary bodies can in principle investigate the same facts at the same time, although their decisions may differ. In France, it is said that “disciplinary proceedings must not await the outcome of criminal proceedings”, which means that disciplinary bodies can decide to punish an individual without having to wait for criminal proceedings brought separately to be completed.

Disciplinary punishment and criminal law punishment are not subject to the same legal rules. For instance, the rule nulla poena sine lege, which prohibits the imposition of penalties not expressly provided for by law, applies strictly in criminal law, but disciplinary systems sometimes grant decision-making bodies a certain amount of latitude regarding the nature and quantum of penalties. Similarly, the rule nullum crimen sine lege, which in criminal law means that a person cannot be charged with an offence not specifically provided for by law, does not necessarily apply to disciplinary law: any breach of obligations, duties, morality, ethics or sports ethics may in principle constitute a disciplinary offence and disciplinary rules may in any case include catch-all definitions of punishable offences (for example “any breach

of the obligations of loyalty and integrity”), which would be unacceptable in criminal law. The rules of evidence are not the same and, for example, evidence not admissible in criminal proceedings may be admissible in disciplinary proceedings. The standard of proof applied in disciplinary law may differ from that followed by the criminal courts (“comfortable satisfaction” or “preponderance of the evidence” in disciplinary proceedings, as opposed to “proof beyond all reasonable doubt”, which is the standard in criminal proceedings).

Furthermore, the principle ne bis in idem (no one may be prosecuted or punished twice for the same offence) does not apply in this regard and does not preclude the initiation of disciplinary proceedings if a criminal prosecution is already in progress or has already been completed, just as it does not preclude the initiation of criminal proceedings if the same facts have already been prosecuted at the disciplinary level. As noted by the TFS, the application of the principle ne bis in idem presupposes the same legally protected assets (same subject-matter), which means that while a person may not be prosecuted twice for the same offence, he may nevertheless be punished twice when the same behaviour can have not only criminal, but also civil, administrative and/or disciplinary consequences.

The French courts have reached the same conclusion. The French Constitutional Council allows cumulative punishments but holds that the combination of criminal and administrative sanctions must not, however, produce consequences that are incompatible with the principle of proportionality. In administrative matters, the French Conseil d’État has always accepted that disciplinary proceedings are independent of any criminal proceedings and, above all, that cumulative penalties are legally possible when imposed for different legal reasons, and in particular on the basis of different legislative provisions. France’s Court of Cassation takes the same line and states consistently that the ne bis in idem rule is only applicable in criminal law and does not preclude cumulative prosecutions and sanctions under criminal law and under tax, customs, administrative and disciplinary law. However, the principle ne bis in idem may apply to disciplinary proceedings to the extent that the imposition of a disciplinary sanction by a disciplinary body with jurisdiction for this generally precludes the imposition of further disciplinary sanctions for the same offence by a body of the same type. Furthermore, there is nothing to prevent disciplinary bodies from taking account of a criminal sanction already imposed on the same person for the same offence in their general assessment of the circumstances of the case prior to determining the disciplinary sanction. This is all the more conceivable in that some criminal courts have already agreed to take account of disciplinary sanctions already adopted by sports federations in determining the most appropriate penalty.

For example, in a case of rigged cricket matches, Southwark Crown Court in London, in a decision of 3 November 2011, took account of the fact that the sports authorities had already handed down a disciplinary penalty of 10 years’ suspension, seriously jeopardising the defendant’s future career, in determining its own sentence. In some cases, the imposition of disciplinary sanctions might also conceivably justify the discontinuation of criminal proceedings, in accordance with the principle of discretionary prosecution, when the criminal court considers that the disciplinary sanction imposed is sufficient to meet the criminal law goals of general and special prevention.

3. Other disputes

For the record, it should be noted that, in some legal systems, such as that of France, disputes under labour law, namely disputes between an employer and a worker, cannot be dealt with outside the state courts and, in principle, are not arbitrable, even if the rules of some organisations require the parties to a contract of employment to submit to a conciliation attempt before a sports body (for example Article 50.1.d., ASF 2015).

Similarly, commercial disputes involving sports bodies may come under the sole jurisdiction of the state courts if no arbitration clause was included in the contract in question.”

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