21 May 2013

The Football Act: ending the shame of turnip on turnip violence.

Opinionated amateur horticulturalists, second-rate pie-sellers, brash turnip impresarios, and grinchly ticket-collectors, beware.  In Glasgow Sheriff Court last week, Sheriff Reid handed down an opinion on the interpretation of our old friend, Holyrood's Offensive Behaviour at Football (etc) Act of 2012

The case involved six characters, charged with forming a disorderly knot in the concourse of Glasgow Central Station. Five of the six admitted that, earlier that day, they'd attended the match between Ayr United and Hibernian football clubs, and travelled back to Glasgow by train from Ayr, with a view to cutting east, back home to Edinburgh.

According to the Sheriff's narration of the Crown's evidence, in the station, the group encountered a group of Rangers fans (and perhaps a smattering of Chelsea supporters), with whom the Crown allege the six gentlemen fell into disorderly confrontation.  No match involving Rangers had been staged that weekend, and none of the Rangers fans which the Crown argue were involved seem to have attended any match involving Ayr, Hibs, or anyone else that day. 

All six men were pulled up before the beak, charged with "threatening" behaviour which was likely to incite public disorder and "other behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive", the indictment alleging that "on the public concourse of a railway station form part of disorderly crowd, fight, gesticulate, throw missiles, challenge the lieges to fight and place the lieges in a state of fear and alarm." 

But did this behaviour, if proved, really "relate" to the regulated football match earlier that day between Ayr and Hibs? Their briefs argued not.  Section 2(2)(b)(iii) of the Football Act is explicit. "Offensive" behaviour isn't just criminalised on the terraces.  The legislation also extends to behaviour "on a journey to or from the regulated football match", by air, land or sea.  Oh.  And to any premises (save for a home say, or other cosy domestic spot) where a football match was televised, and presumably, to the journeys to and from those public houses.

The defence lawyers contended that there had to be a more substantial link between the regulated football match involved and the offensive or threatening behaviour criminalised under the new law. Sheriff Reid disagreed, and explaining his reasoning, offered this vivid assessment of the broad gamut of the new law.

[54] ...  a supporter within a football stadium during a regulated football match may become embroiled in a violent altercation with a pie seller. The dispute may have nothing to do with football or the match. It may relate to the quality of the pie. On both a literal and a purposive interpretation of the [Football] 2012 Act, the behaviour of both the supporter and the pie seller would fall within the ambit of the statutory offence. Likewise, a supporter on a return train journey home from a match may become offensive towards a ticket inspector. The argument may have nothing to do with football or the match. It may relate to an alleged unpaid fare. On both a literal and a purposive interpretation of the 2012 Act, the behaviour of the supporter would fall within the ambit of the statutory offence.
Or the amateur horticulturalists, returning to their hotel from a visit to the Ayr Flower Show, who are drawn into a fight with fellow guests who are watching a live televised football match in the hotel lounge. The fight may have nothing to do with football or the match. It may relate to the size of turnips. On both a literal and a purposive interpretation of the 2012 Act, the behaviour of all participants would fall within the ambit of the statutory offence. There is no absurdity in these results. It accords with the "overriding priority" (per the Policy Memorandum) of the legislation which is to improve the unacceptable behaviour and attitudes increasingly displayed at, around, or on journeys to and from, regulated football matches, whatever the motivation for the offending behaviour. Parliament has designated "trouble free" zones in the context of regulated football matches - and persons finding themselves, or happening upon others, in such qualifying locations must take particular care to moderate their behaviour accordingly.

The next time you fancy collaring a fellow "commoner gardener" in the hotel lounge, arguing that his prize swede is really a diminutive turnip, think twice. Oh. And be sure to check if Ayr are playing Hibs on the telly first.


  1. I'm still a little bewildered that people keep objecting to the OBFA on the grounds of things that MIGHT happen as a result of it, rather than things which actually HAVE. The trigger for the incident described sounds to have been football-related regardless of any specific game, and should we not applaud anything which - albeit rather selectively, but the longest journey starts with a single step and all that - causes football fans to beware of embroiling themselves in unsightly scenes in public?

    Indeed, could it not be argued that it's even MORE important to make them behave away from football grounds? At least if they must disagree physically inside or just outside a stadium, there'll be lots of officers of the law around and relatively few innocent passers-by who might suffer. Glasgow Central is a different kettle of neds entirely.

    I'm aware of the "something must be done, and this is something" argument, but I'm yet to see an outcome of the Act I'm unhappy about, including this one. As far as I can gather, a dozen twats got in a fight about football in a busy train station, around families and children, and it seems may suffer more punitive consequences than they otherwise might have. Am I really so alone in the response "Good"?

    1. RevStu,

      For the avoidance of doubt, if the facts set out in the indictment are proved, I don't regard this as a problematic case at all. Sheriff Reid's opinion is a very reasonable interpretation of the legislation as passed - and as the judgment sets out - the accused were indicted with an alternative common law charge of breach of the peace. Without passing comment on the guilt or innocence of the six accused people, scrapping in Glasgow Central Station would be a clear example of a breach of the peace, and rightly penalised in our criminal courts. No bones about that. Despite my sightly sardonic tone here, I thought I'd mention the case because of the colour of the sheriff's opinion, rather than to criticise the case as an outrageous manifestation of the legislation's vices.

  2. (Though Sheriff Reid's obiter comments about other scenarios which might be caught by the legislation gesture more in that direction).

  3. I would agree that the actual case shows a good interpretation and prosecution of the law. I am also, however, bemused by the apparently serious "potential" acts of law breaking which might fall under the ambit of the law as proposed by the Sheriff.

    If he is genuinely proposing that two men (or many) get into a fight about the nature of a turnip while one of them is watching a football match on the TV would be caught under the OBFA, then I think he needs to get out more. Affray, or "disturbing the peace" - fine, but this could not in any REAL sense be the purpose of the OBFA.

    Or have I missed the point of the Law?

    1. Anthony,

      You've not missed the point of the legislation, but you have overlooked s2(3) of the law, which extends the offences created under the Act to any place other than domestic premises are televised. Remember that the offence itself may be anything which "the reasonable person finds offensive" or "threatening behaviour" which risks inciting public disorder. Even if the telly is on but silent, that'd bring any behaviour - including behaviour about turnips - under the ambit of the legislation, as Sheriff Reid suggests.

  4. Can't believe a Sheriff writing about violence at the Ayr flower show could annoy me! This case shows just how broadly drafted the Act is - which is hardly a recipe for good law. Basically, cast the net as widely as possible and then let the procurator fiscal decide which fish get to swim away. It seems to me that those who support this law are so blinded by the politics behind its implementation that they have convinced themselves it's something a progressive person could support. It's not. It's just illiberal, pointless legislation.