Match of the day
11 May 2011
For most barristers the most memorable cases are those that come from nowhere yet the court’s decision is imperative to future progression.
In the world of sport these are the cases that define the future of a club and, in football, they are cases that are closely followed by the fans and media.
The Football Association’s (FA) disciplinary proceedings against Queens Park Rangers Football Club (QPR) began as a slow burner, but snowballed through the season to become a white-hot debate that needed to be dealt with before the whistle blew to kick off the club’s last game of the season.
The FA began investigating QPR early in the season when the club asked permission to buy out a third party that owned the economic rights of its Argentinian player Alejandro Faurlin. The request was made after the Football League introduced rules prohibiting the third-party ownership of players in the wake of the Carlos Tevez saga (17 August 2007).
Formal charges were brought in March with Blackstone Chambers’ Adam Lewis QC instructed for the FA. Blackstone Chambers also won a role on the case, acting for QPR, with IPS Law partner Chris Farnell instructing Ian Mill QC to lead (lifelong QPR fan) Nick De Marco.
The FA launched seven charges against the club of breaching FA regulations regarding third-party ownership, supplying false information, the use of unauthorised agents and bringing the game into disrepute.
One legal observer commented: “It was the first time since the Tevez case that the FA has used the powers on third-party ownership. It had become a bit of a test case on those rules.”
If the club were found guilty of the third-party breaches it would certainly face a fine but, more importantly, it could also be docked important points, thereby pushing it down the league.
With the club looking likely to move into the lucrative Premier League, guaranteeing itself a £90m boost, the pressure was on all parties to get the dispute settled before the end of the season.
The case was given added impetus when it emerged that QPR was a contender for the Championship trophy. Had the points been deducted the coveted prize would have needed to be withdrawn, causing some embarrassment for all involved. Furthermore, there were legal questions over whether the points could be deducted once the final whistle had been blown on the season.
Yet because there was so much evidence from all sides to plough through, the matter only reached the FA’s independent regulatory commission in the week before the club’s final game of the season, against Leeds United on 7 May.
The four-day hearing ran over and the commission was convened on Saturday morning with just hours to go until the final match. As QPR fans made their way to Loftus Road they waited to hear the most important result of the season - the one involving barristers.
It came at midday with a terse statement on the FA website stating that the club would not be docked any points, but that it had been found guilty of two breaches. The first related to FA rule E3, for which it was fined a record £800,000, and the second related to the rules governing football agents, for which it was fined £75,000.
There may be significant fines and the legal costs involved with hiring a heavyweight silk like Mill would no doubt be hefty, but the £90m the club will get from its elevation will make the costs easier to swallow.
The world of sports law is open to only a few elite lawyers, with partners such as Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Graham Shear cornering the market.
At the bar Blackstone’s barristers dominate the sector with stars like Mill, Michael Beloff QC and David Pannick QC in its pack. Monckton Chambers is attempting to make its mark and this year took a step forward with the appointment of Paul Harris and Daniel Beard as silks with sports practices.
The FA’s case against QPR had all the hallmarks of a classic sports law case and shows why sport is an area that attracts some of the best lawyers in the profession.