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A day in court isn't the only solution

O n July 21, 2008, Just Sport Ireland issued its very first decision, adjudicating on a dispute between St Paul's basketball club in Killarney and the sport's national association, Basketball Ireland.

It wasn't a major dispute in the overall scheme of things, but to the two disagreeing parties it was a very big deal. The Kerry club had failed to attain a licence under a new Basketball Ireland licensing programme and had also lost an appeal against the decision. The club clearly felt seriously wronged by the decision; Basketball Ireland equally felt it had no choice but to make a hard call.

The two parties went initially to mediation and then into full arbitration. Just Sport Ireland, a specialist dispute resolution service set up by the Federation of Irish Sports in late 2007, heard both sides of the argument and made a decision -- in this case in favour of Basketball Ireland.

The association had been one of the first of the national governing bodies under the umbrella of the Federation of Irish Sports -- whose initiative this was -- to make provision within its rules for referral to Just Sport Ireland in the event that its own procedures failed to resolve a dispute.

On its website, Just Sport Ireland points out that it has been designed so that lawyers are not a necessity, but can be used if a party so decides. Interestingly, it also states that its decisions are "binding and enforceable" and that "the only instance in which an appeal against an arbitral award can be made is where the rules of a sporting organisation make provision for an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne."

The key thing about the whole process of that first groundbreaking case, though, was that it took just 10 weeks to complete and cost only €1,500. Had this case ended up in this country's court system, there can be no doubt that the eventual cost -- which most likely would have been borne by the loser -- would have been many multiples of that figure.

(To put that €1,500 in context, a reasonable estimate of the cost to the Irish Sports Council and the Athletics Association of Ireland of settling the High Court action with former AI chief executive Mary Coghlan earlier this year would be over €500,000, most of it spent on respective legal teams.)

In England, the case of Diane Modahl ended up in court and it proved a costly experience for the former 800m runner and the British Athletics Federation. Modahl (pictured) failed a drugs test in 1994 and was banned. A year later, she successfully proved she was not a cheat and her ban was lifted. In 2000, a claim for damages against the BAF failed and the financial cost to Modahl and the BAF was enormous.

Sporting disputes ending up in the High Court is never good for business. Even the legal system acknowledges this.

A dispute over an incident at a road bowling match in Cork four years ago ended up in the High Court and, in delivering his judgement, Mr Justice Smyth noted: "Sports organisations do best to resolve differences under their own governing codes, rather than recourse to the courts of law." He concluded then by quoting from Patrick Kavanagh's poem, Epic:

'I inclined to lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin

Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind

He said; I made The Iliad from such a local row

Gods make their own importance.'

The GAA was quick to recognise that some form of system was needed to tackle the growing problem of disputes ending up in the High Court. Of course, the GAA's disciplinary system remains for the most part as it always has been: unnecessarily convoluted and unwieldy.

But it did establish the Disputes Resolution Authority in 2005 -- an independent arbitration panel comprising solicitors, barristers, arbitrators and other persons of expertise in GAA matters. The setting up of the DRA has led to a drastic fall in disputes within the association going into the legal system.

The whole area of independent disputes resolution in sport continues to grow internationally and it is heartening to see that there are realistic alternatives to the court system here for people with grievances in their chosen sport to pursue.

Sunday Independent