Everyone’s equal in the eyes of the law – unless you are a football fan

Are we seeing the emergence of a two-tier legal system in which football fans are treated as a class apart? Martin Cloake and solicitor Darren White examine the evidence and ask whether we should have cause for concern.

A young Crystal Palace fan enjoys his hot dog before a match
Not all football fans are football hooligans. Photo: Getty

The perception of football supporters primarily as a problem to be dealt with is now a thing of the past, we are told. And it’s comforting to believe that is true.

Unfortunately, while organised supporters have been able to articulate and embed some better practices, there is still plenty of evidence of football fans being treated primarily as a problem. This matters. It matters because singling out and demonising a particular set of people – prejudice in everyday parlance – is just plain wrong. But it also matters because of the impact on the rest of society. Those of us who grew up in the 1980s and who went to the football but were also politically active soon understood how techniques honed against football supporters were also used on organised labour.

A number of legal experts dealing with the area have spoken of the emergence of a two-tier legal system in which football fans are treated as a class apart from everyone else. Key to this is the ability to demonise football fans, something that has been done by mobilising the traditional fear of the “hooligan” that has run through the establishment and been used as an excuse for social control for centuries. The prejudice that still exists was characterised neatly by barrister Alison Gurden, who wrote on her blog:

When I explain to people that I represent football fans the usual reply is ‘oh, what, football hooligans?’. My reply to this is usually: ‘No, men, women, teenagers, students, doctors, police officers, architects, chefs, builders and baristas – all of whom are also football fans!’.

This year, with a World Cup coming up in the summer in Brazil, there will be a flurry of stories in the national press about “risk groups” of fans, of banning orders and restrictions on travel and all the measures being taken to prevent the carnage that, no doubt, a few wannabe hooligan generals will be more than happy to talk up the prospect of. With a moral panic duly created, and accepted without challenge or question by much of the media, it will be so much easier to justify the use of repressive measures which, once established, can be expanded. So it’s important to attempt to provide some context, to ask questions about the assertions being made, and to consider if the control being talked about moves beyond the relatively simple concept of public order. Especially important at a time when we have a government committed to pushing the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill through Parliament, a bill described by George Monbiot in the Guardian as “the most oppressive bill pushed through any recent Parliament”.

Living in a bubble

In August 2011, Cardiff City played West Ham United at the London side’s Boleyn Ground. The police designated the game a partial “bubble match”. This meant travelling Cardiff fans had to catch a designated coach from Cardiff at 5am and rendezvous with the Metropolitan Police at South Mimms service station. There, their coaches would be searched, vouchers exchanged for match tickets, and the coaches then escorted to the ground. Cardiff fans received half their full allocation, and no fan was allowed to travel independently to the game. Some groups of Cardiff and West Ham fans have a history of organised violent behaviour although, over the last couple of decades, the kind of disturbances that fuelled their reputations have been few and far between. But for many, Cardiff versus West Ham means potential trouble, and so arguments against the “bubble” restrictions are easily dismissed as being soft on hooliganism.

Fans of Huddersfield Town and Hull City have no history of animosity. But in March 2013, West Yorkshire Police designated the match between the two clubs a bubble match under the C+IR security categorisation – the highest possible. Hull City fans, whose travel to the game was to be restricted, have no record of involvement in fan trouble. The decision provoked outrage. John Prescott, former MP for Hull and deputy prime minister, branded the arrangements “the most draconian travel restrictions since miners’ strike pickets were targeted”. The club itself took the unusual step of issuing a public statement protesting at the “effective criminalisation of our supporters” and “the implications for away fans in general”. Supporters groups from both clubs opposed the restrictions, and protested on the day of the game. One 15-year-old Hull City fan, Louis Cooper, took the police to court, arguing the restrictions had no lawful basis.

The police responded by saying that they had “listened carefully to the concerns of fans” and by easing the restrictions. But that easing still did not allow independent travel to the match. Hull City FC offered to make whatever arrangements were necessary for Cooper to attend the game, but this meant that – as he was no longer restricted by the conditions of the bubble match – he could not continue to challenge them. Cooper refused to attend the match, saying he did not want special treatment.

When police tried to make this year’s Newcastle v Sunderland derby a bubble match, and then claimed they had no power to restrict travel by fans or influence kick-off times, the clubs themselves were so outraged they jointly rejected the move. The police claim is even stranger in light of the fact that Northumbria police had carried out the review of the West Yorkshire force’s handling of the Huddersfield/Hull bubble.

According to research by the libertarian-leaning Manifesto Club, at least 48 matches in the last 10 years have been designated bubble games. Those matches involve 14 major clubs in England and Wales, and have occurred in six police authority areas. As the Manifesto Club points out, these figures are likely to be conservative. The information was compiled from Freedom of Information requests, and “a handful of police authorities have either delayed production of the information, or pointed to the exemption under Part II Section 31 (law Enforcement) of the Freedom of Information Act”.

Amanda Jacks, the caseworker at the Football Supporters’ Federation who deals with bubble matches, says: “The FSF is opposed to bubble matches for the simple reason they curtail the movement of ordinary, decent fans and that they do not necessarily prevent disorder. Further, they do little to dilute matchday tensions and arguably may even enhance them.” But, she says, bubble match designations are “difficult to challenge via the courts. You do not have a human right to travel unimpeded to a football match and it is important to consider that the judiciary will take into account that, effectively, you are buying a ticket for such a game on a voluntary basis”.

Rather worryingly for those who recognise the civil liberties implications of bubble matches, seeking a system of accountability for their implementation is also fraught with difficulty. As the Manifesto Club says: “It is often difficult to know who is responsible for the decision to instigate a bubble match.” Every professional game in England and Wales is partly governed by a Safety Advisory Group, comprised of members from the emergency services, the licensing body the Sports Ground Safety Authority, local council representatives and officials from the clubs concerned. (Note, there are no fan organisations involveddespite both the Association of Chief Police Officers and the FA recommending dialogue with supporters). As the Manifesto Club points out, this means “no individual party necessarily takes responsibility for the decisions being made” which means “it is easier for the buck to be passed”.

In 2010/11, 37 million people attended professional football matches in England and Wales. Total arrests were 3,089, 0.01 per cent of all spectators. Bubble match designations criminalise and punish all away fans in the hope that a tiny, violent minority will be deterred. As the Manifesto Club points out: “Under Britain’s common law, people are treated as innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around. People are held to account for their own actions, not punished for the actions of others.”

It is one thing to criminalise groups of football fans. What of the treatment of individual fans? Again, there is a body of evidence that raises questions about the kind of decisions being taken, and the accountability of those who take them – all underlying a worrying assault on individual freedom and a tendency to let prejudice play a part in the legal approach.

Serving the public

When Liverpool visited Old Trafford to play Manchester United this year, Liverpool fan Kieth Culvin was among the travelling supporters. Kieth is a 53-year-old father of three who runs his own plumbing business. He’s also a member of Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankley supporter’s union committee, and in that role meets regularly with the police at their request to help improve the way fans are policed.

Games between the two clubs are often volatile affairs, with the fierce rivalry between the two cities providing an edge that has been known to spill over. As a result, Greater Manchester Police hold back away fans after the game in order to reduce the risk of confrontation between rival sets of supporters. In recent years, fans have complained that, while they are held back in the stadium, they have been denied access to the toilets. During the meetings between SOS and GMP, the police recognised the issue and it was agreed that police would be briefed to allow use of the toilets during the hold back, while the SOS website carried a press release outlining the arrangements.

Some five minutes after the game ended, Culvin noticed there was a problem developing at the stairs by one of the exits. He could hear fans asking to use the toilets and see a crowd beginning to mass at the top of the stairwell. “Amongst these fans,” remembers Culvin,  “were women, children and older fans who were clearly getting distressed because they couldn't use the toilets after thinking that this had all been agreed, and they were telling the police that.” Culvin decided to try to resolve the situation.

After about five minutes, he says, it became clear that the two officers at the top of the stairs “were listening to no one”. They were also “becoming aggressive towards me and the fans around me which in turn was starting to cause a problem”. Culvin phoned the officer whose number he had been given as a contact. The officer was outside the stadium but said he would try to get someone to sort the problem out. The situation was getting worse by the minute. Culvin spotted a senior officer at the bottom of the stairs and asked the officers at the top if he could get past to speak to him. His request was aggressively rebuffed – an incident that suggests that, while a lot of senior officers ‘get it’, the message has clearly not filtered down to the officers on the ground.

By now, Culvin could see there was a high level of distress and anger among the fans. He asked again to be allowed down the stairs to speak to the senior officer, and was again refused. He managed to walk down a few steps, keeping his arms carefully by his side and noticed a yellow-clad figure falling into the seats by his left. “The next thing I know I'm getting dragged out down the stairs by the two officers who I was trying to talk to at the top of the exit,” says Culvin. “They dragged me down onto the concourse below into the toilets where they pushed me against the wall face first and started to punch me in the back and legs. They then handcuffed me.”

Culvin was taken to a holding cell, then to a police station to be formally charged with assaulting a police officer. He was read a statement from the officer he was accused of assaulting. Culvin was said to have put his arm against the officer’s chest, which made the officer lose his footing.

The case went to court, but was thrown out. It was thrown out because Culvin, an experienced hand at dealing with these situations, had asked a fellow fan to film his encounter with the police on his phone before he approached them. And that film showed that Culvin categorically did not assault the police officer. Solicitor Melanie Cooke, who represented Culvin, says: “Once the CPS had reviewed the case in light of the defence representations and after viewing a DVD of the camera phone footage, the criminal proceedings were immediately discontinued”.

“Without that video,” says Culvin, “there is no doubt I would have been found guilty of something I hadn’t done. I find it totally disgusting that this could have happened to me and that even now, after the charges have been dropped, that the CPS can still think it’s OK for them to keep on record that I had been charged and by doing so can keep on their records my DNA, fingerprints and photograph.” Culvin is currently pursuing a complaint against Greater Manchester Police.

In the summer of 2010 Tony McManus was on his way to the World Cup in South Africa.  He had been saving up for ages and had booked a month off work. McManus is a builder in his early forties, who lives in Middlesbrough. He travels all over the UK and abroad supporting Middlesbrough FC and England. 

Like a lot of men, McManus got into a bit of trouble when he was young; nothing too serious. He grew up, settled down, and hasn’t been in trouble for a long, long time.

When McManus and his friend turned up at the airport early that summer morning to get their flight, they were stopped by the police. There was apparently intelligence that they were “risk” supporters. In police speak, that means nothing more than that the police believed they might get involved in football violence. Not that they have a violent record or even that there is a suspicion that they been violent – just a vague belief that it was possible they might be violent in the future.

McManus and his friend were stopped from boarding the plane, their passports were confiscated and they were held in police custody for nearly seven hours. They were then told that the police would be applying for an order banning them from attending football matches and that they had to go to Court that day. The police suggested they should just agree to the order as it would cost a lot of money to fight it. McManus said no and got a lawyer.

The evidence from the police turned out, as it emerged, to be quite revealing. There was CCTV of McManus coming out of a pub in Tottenham in 2002 when Middlesbrough played there. Apparently the pub was known to be frequented by Middlesbrough hooligans, so anyone using it was deemed to be guilty by association. McManus had also once been seen in a minibus at Stoke with someone who looked like he had been injured in a fight. The police did not see the fight and there was no suggestion McManus had been involved in a fight.

McManus found that, when the police applied for his banning order, they described him as one of the leaders of a group of 750 Middlesbrough hooligans. How they gathered that from evidence that showed, at the very most, that he has a few people amongst his acquaintances who are less than angelic, was not explained. What it does show is the carelessness with which the police throw around allegations when it comes to the policing of football.

McManus says: “It seems all you have to do is speak to someone who is a ‘risk’ supporter or go to the same pub as them and you become a ‘risk’ supporter yourself. That must mean every Boro fan who has ever spoken to me is now a ‘risk’ supporter.”

Perhaps more sinister is the fact that the police are quite clearly keeping detailed records of the apparently innocent activities of those attending football matches which they can then summon up at will – even eight years later.

The police got the case adjourned repeatedly (until long after the World Cup had finished) and then decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to get a banning order against the two men and dropped the case. So McManus had lost his holiday and his chance to see England’s football team humiliated for no reason.

Take a moment to think about this. A man was stopped from going abroad and locked up not because he had been violent or committed any sort of crime but because he was seen associating with people the police thought to be dodgy characters. It might sound hyperbolic, but that’s the sort of policing usually associated with, well, police states. But the police thought he might just possibly be a football hooligan, so that was OK.

McManus brought a legal action against the police. It came to court last week. Cases against the police are usually decided by a jury and McManus and his lawyers were confident that a jury would see the injustice of the case and find in his favour. However, the police argued that the case was just about a technical legal argument as to whether the police had acted “reasonably” – and that was for a judge to decide. The judge agreed and said he would try the case without a jury. He dropped strong hints that he thought that what the police did was “reasonable” as defined by the relevant law. McManus and his lawyers felt it very likely the judge would find against them and that their chances of success before a judge were low.

The case was backed by an insurance company and when they were told it looked like McManus would lose, they pulled the plug. McManus could obviously not carry on without insurance, so he was forced to drop the case. What is perhaps most startling here is that it can appear to a judge to be entirely reasonable and in accordance with the law for the police to suspect someone of being a hooligan and prevent them travelling abroad, just because of the company they keep. The judge may well be right, which says something startling about the law in this area.

Then there is John (not his real name). John is 15 and a fanatical Portsmouth fan. He lives with his mum and dad and has never been in any sort of trouble. At the end of last season Portsmouth had been relegated to the fourth tier before their last game at Shrewsbury. However, the club had been taken over by a fans trust and there was expected to be a big presence of Portsmouth fans at Shrewsbury to celebrate the new start.

John travelled up to Shrewsbury on a train with his friend and his friend’s dad. He was 14 at the time. When they got to the station his friend and his dad went to the toilet. John mooched around outside the station with other Portsmouth fans, waiting for them to rejoin him.

Without warning, a large number of police formed up in two lines and told the fans they had to go with them. John tried to explain that he had been parted from the adult he had come with, but was ignored. The fans were marched to an empty nightclub and were told they had to go inside. They were searched by someone who appeared to be a bouncer before going into the club and then locked in for some two hours. There was no access to food or drink in the club. John was, however, allowed out to purchase some fried chicken, but given the danger he obviously posed, only when accompanied by a police officer and on the basis that he went straight back to the club! At no point was John given any explanation as to what was going on.

After two hours, the fans were released and allowed to proceed to the ground and John was eventually re-united with his friend and his dad.

When he got home, John told his parents what had happened. They got in touch with the FSF who put them in touch with a lawyer. The local police were contacted and told that they had no right to treat a child in the way they had. The police said that the operation was justified as the train that John came on had some “risk” (that word again) supporters on it. However, they accepted that they should have paid more attention to the fact that John was a minor and have agreed to pay him a four-figure compensation sum.

In John’s case, it’s guilt by association again. The police had concerns about some of the people on the train, so it was OK to lock up lots of innocent people – including children – as well.

A robust policy

In the last 12 months alone, the FSF estimates it has dealt with a number of cases which seem to indicate there is a two-tier legal system that separates football fans from other members of society. Their caseworker, Amanda Jacks, has been told by fans that the police themselves have admitted that if this wasn’t football they’d be on their way. There’s the case of the 17-year-old arrested in handcuffs for taking a match ball home as a souvenir, the fan banned by his club after the police failed to secure a conviction relating to an incident entirely separate from football, groups of young men being stopped and made to provide personal details on camera, fans detained on civil matters who have their details sent on to the police and kept on file. And, says Jacks: “In every single case that we can assist with, if a fan is put before the courts a banning order will be applied for regardless of the offence or the offender’s history”.

In guidelines issued in August 2013, the Crown Prosecution Service says it will “continue to operate a robust prosecution policy for football related offences” and that “This means there will be a presumption of prosecution whenever there is sufficient evidence to bring offenders before a court”. This issue of presumption of prosecution is an important one. It means that other methods of disposal, such as fixed penalties or cautions, are rejected in favour of the significant step of prosecution. As the Heresy Corner blog pointed out at the time of the Twitter joke trial, guidance on the presumption of prosecution does not “consider the proportionality of subjecting someone of previous good character to the full rigor of the legal process, which can be shattering even if they are ultimately acquitted.” And legal bloggers have expressed concern about the CPS’s decision making on prosecutions, and the implications of taking such a significant step.

We are not arguing that football fans are the only section of society to be singled out or stereotyped. What we are saying is that each time this happens, each time authority or mainstream opinion excuses the relaxation of the normal standards of justice and fairness by claiming it is done to make us all safer, we all in fact become that little bit less safe. The boundaries of acceptable judgement are pushed back, and we stumble towards demonisation and dehumanisation.

Coda

We completed this article a few days after the Merseyside derby at Anfield. Everton fans claim there was “pandemonium” outside the away end as they tried to enter the ground. Only four turnstiles were open as a crowd of about a thousand built up. A crush developed, with fans pinned against walls. A 13-year-old boy had the skin taken off his toes when a police horse stepped on his foot. Video footage on the Liverpool Echo website shows the scenes.

The police have responded by saying fans were advised to arrive in good time, and pointing out that: “At 7.45pm, less than half the 2,700 fans in the away section had entered the stadium.” They point out that extensive publicity had been given before the match to appeals to arrive early because Liverpool FC had “a stricter than usual searching policy in place to identify anyone carrying flares or other forms of pyrotechnics”. The threat of pyrotechnics is one of the latest ways in which the inherent threat of football supporters is being talked up, witness this sensationalist report on the BBC website.

The response to fan’s complaints about safety is to infer that the fans themselves are to blame. If this was any other set of customers, questions might be asked about why the authorities had no plan to deal with an entirely predictable build-up of numbers outside the gates, or whether priority was given to searches or safety. But these were football fans. They arrived late. They were a potential threat.

The perception of football supporters primarily as a problem to be dealt with, we are told, is now a thing of the past.

Darren White is a solicitor with Deighton Pierce Glynn. He acts for a number of football supporters mistreated by the authorities