Sports law is a relatively new classification. There is probably no such thing as a pure sports law barrister: what you will find is a relatively small number of practitioners who do a significant amount of sports-related work that is likely to be connected to their main practice areas. For example, you will find a few members of the criminal law bar who appear regularly before sporting disciplinary tribunals and a handful of personal injury law barristers who often act for sportsmen and sportswomen injured on the field of play. Barristers tend to fall into sports law either because they have a particular connection with a single sport or because they become involved at an early stage of their career with a case that generates a lot of interest. If a barrister has no interest in sport in the first place, then it is unusual for him or her to develop a specialism in this area.
A sports law barrister's work
Perhaps the greatest concentration of barristers claiming to specialise in sports law occurs in those sets practising in both commercial and public law. The interface between the commercial aspects of sport (eg transfers, agency agreements and sponsorship) and the regulatory framework that applies to each sport and, increasingly, to each sporting event (eg doping bans and Olympic ineligibility) provides fertile territory for any aspiring sports law practitioner. Furthermore, the sums of money at stake in these cases are often very substantial: many professional sportsmen and sportswomen are now able to command earnings far higher than in other sectors of the employment market.
Clients in this area could include, for example, premiership footballers, badly injured boxers, swimming regulatory bodies or global businesses engaged in sponsoring the World Cup. The sports law barrister may one week become involved in a disciplinary hearing dealing with the citing of the England captain at the Rugby World Cup. The next, he or she might draft a letter on behalf of a World Championship gold medallist athlete to the British Olympic Association, submitting that the exclusion of athletes who have served a doping ban from the British Olympic team is neither just nor proportionate, and is potentially a breach of the athlete’s human rights. Another sports law barrister may fly out to a hearing on UEFA agency agreements before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland before dashing to an international judo competition in Seville to act as an on-site panel chairman in the event of disputes arising.
Players of all sports, at all levels and ages, are injured every week. Most injuries occur without negligence or intent (boxing excepted) on the part of a third party. However, a significant number are caused by a reckless tackle, an assault, or the negligence of a coach/club physiotherapist in sending the player out on to the field following pre-match pain-killing injections. The public is rapidly becoming aware of the fact that in going out to play sport, a player does not sign away his rights to make a claim if he or she is injured through the apparent negligence of another. The threshold can be high – something more than mere negligence is required for injuries on the field of play in fast-moving sports – but the number of claims in this field is increasing.
In all cases, it is important to stay aware of the commercial issues. Most people at the top of professional sport are acutely aware of their current earnings levels and the necessarily short nature of their career. Few athletes who appeal against a doping ban are doing it simply to clear their name (although that may be an important factor). Rather, most will be concerned about two years’ loss of earnings from track and field activities and missing out on selection for international events that would have boosted their marketing appeal to potential or existing sponsors
What skills do sports law barristers need?
- Some feel for and understanding of sport. You do not have to have participated in sport at a high level but you must be able to empathise with your lay clients, which is only possible if you have a reasonable understanding both of the particular sport and the culture surrounding it.
- The ability to remain alive to the commercial aspects of cases.
Sports law pupillages
A pupil barrister is highly unlikely to get their hands on any sports law work unless they act or advise in a voluntary capacity. There are a number of community sports clubs and associations that are crying out for assistance with their constitutions, insurance arrangements and disciplinary issues. Any keen pupil wishing to specialise in this area would do well to involve themselves in a club or association in this way on a voluntary basis. A further option would be to seek employment prior to pupillage as a paralegal in a sports governing body; however, such jobs are very hard to come by.
The closest that many pupils will come to sports law during their actual pupillage may be in the magistrates’ court, prosecuting fishermen caught angling without a permit. There is little sport to be had here.
Types of law practised
- Commercial law/contract law.
- Employment law.
- Intellectual property law.
- Public law.
- Regulatory/disciplinary, with some criminal law.
- Tort, especially personal injury and clinical negligence law.
RICHARD BOOTH is a barrister at 1 CROWN OFFICE ROW, specialising in sports law, regulatory/disciplinary tribunals, clinical negligence and personal injury.