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The public interest: should fans be be prosecuted for minor offences?

This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and Supporters Direct merged to become the FSA in 2019 – so this page may contain hyperlinks that do not work and/or have missing files. Our archived pages are not maintained and will not be updated.

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Following incidents last month there was a lot of talk about clamping down on supporters, but is dragging fans through the courts for celebratory pitch invasions really in the public interest? Here FSF caseworker Amanda Jacks argues for more proportionate responses…

Drugs are illegal. Everybody knows they are, but the vast majority of people accept that it is not the best use of police time – or tax payers’ money – for them to arrest every person they come across with a small amount of drugs in their possession. 

That doesn’t mean there won’t be sanctions, but those sanctions tend to be proportionate, a fixed penalty notice or caution perhaps for a first offence. However, most reasonable people would expect the police to take stronger action against persistent offenders or those in possession of drugs with intent to supply and they do, as you would expect, acting in the public interest. 

Going on to a football pitch is also illegal (unless you have a lawful excuse/authority or a defence in law) do we not see the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) exercise the same amount of discretion with football supporters as they do with drug users? Not so much. 

There are, thankfully, instances where discretion has been sensibly exercised and recently I’ve been made aware of cases where a club ban has been deemed a suitable sanction by police working in conjunction with a club or when police have recognised that the fan has acted in a ‘moment of celebratory madness’ and a simple caution has sufficed. 

Those decision makers should be applauded for their pragmatic approach. Extremely valuable police and court time is saved as is the cost to the public purse and most importantly, individuals previously unknown to the police are not saddled with a criminal record for an offence where there has been no ‘harm’. In other words, they’ve acted in the public interest. 

A few weeks ago, a Birmingham City fan entered the field of play and punched a player, Jack Grealish. That case dominated the news for two days and was widely commented on by a broad spectrum of commentators. Inevitably so, it was shocking behaviour and an affront to the overwhelming majority of fans who risk being tainted by another’s actions. However, what was missing from the commentary was nuance and according to many, anybody who goes on the pitch should feel the ‘full force of the law’ (as the Grealish attacker did) with no distinction made as to the reason or circumstances.

I accept that some will agree with them. I don’t. There is a world of difference between a brief and celebratory pitch incursion and one with malicious intent even if the law doesn’t make that distinction. But those who enforce the law can, as I’ve already alluded to, make that distinction and exercise discretion arguably acting in the public interest, a test that should always be applied when a decision is made to charge an individual with a criminal offence. 

There are many stadiums where the pitch is some distance from the stands with several barriers in between. AFC Bournemouth does not have not such a stadium. The away fans are literally on top of the pitch and are housed behind a very low barrier. Since their promotion to the Premier League we have seen several cases of away teams scoring a late minute winner or equaliser, the players rushing over to celebrate with their supporters. Consequently several fans have ended up on the area next to the pitch either because they’ve jumped the barrier or been forced over it due to fans behind them surging forward. You do not have to cross the white pitch line for the offence to be committed; being in an area adjacent to the pitch is sufficient. 

When these occasions have been discussed on social media, a minority of people see such circumstances as no excuse or reason for ending up on the pitch. To them it’s black and white; the law says don’t go on the pitch so don’t, no matter what, and if you do you deserve all you get.  Passion, a rush of blood to the head, sheer jubilation are no excuse whatsoever. 

We could debate this for the next hundred years but in a stadium such as Dean Court, particularly when players rush over to their fans to celebrate that precious point or points fans spilling onto the pitch has happened time and time again. Not everybody’s brain will remind them that going onto the pitch is illegal in a moment of genuine high excitement. And yet many of those people have been charged by Dorset Police and had to answer to their ‘crime’ in court. 

A couple of weeks after the Grealish incident, Newcastle United were away to AFC Bournemouth. It was 2-1 until the dying minutes of the game when Matt Ritchie scored an equaliser. Players rushed over to their fans, bedlam ensued, and seven supporters were escorted off the pitch and handed over to police officers. By now it was about 4.50pm.

It was open to the police to take the details of those supporters and if satisfied that they are properly identified, allow them to leave to be contacted at a later date to arrange a police interview or be summoned to court. The interview could even have been arranged to take place nearer to their home town. On the face of it was there a ‘necessity’ for Dorset Police to arrest the NUFC seven? Regardless arrest them they did. 

A couple of the fans who contacted me later told me the police had said they had to be arrested because a (female) steward had suffered a facial injury in the melee. But again, was the necessity to arrest met? It still remained open to the police to release them that night and at one point several of them were told they would be, but a decision was apparently made higher up the chain of command – they had to be arrested and taken to a local police station.

I was told they all waited at least three hours to be booked in. As is standard procedure, they all had their DNA, finger prints and photographs taken and then were locked up to spend a long and uncomfortable night in a police cell.  If you’ve never been arrested before, that is some shock to the system. 

The next day (Sunday) it was early afternoon before they were interviewed under caution. One of the fans wasn’t charged with pitch incursion, as CCTV showed he’d actually been pulled over the barrier by stewards but the rest were charged and unconditionally bailed to return to Poole Magistrates Court on April 2nd. 

None of the fans were found to be responsible for the injuries the steward suffered although apparently remain under investigation. Having spent some twenty hours in police custody nearly all the NUFC fans faced a very long and very expensive return journey back to the north east. 

It isn’t unreasonable to wonder how much pressure those seven occupied cells put on Dorset Police that Saturday evening and how much time was taken up in the arrest process. It’s possible that precious police time was spent transporting other arrested individuals that evening to other police stations due to lack of space. How much police time was spent processing them on the Sunday at the expense of other crime not being investigated and the custody clock ticking down on others? All legitimate questions, I feel. 

While this was going on, I was busy working in conjunction with Anthony Armstrong of the Newcastle Supporters’ Trust and using social media, we advised fans they should contact us for referral to Football Law Associates (solicitors who specialise in representing supporters) who would initially advise them free of charge. Word quickly got out the majority of those charged with pitch encroachment were ultimately represented by Football Law Associates. 

For a supporter facing criminal proceedings in a court roughly nine hours travel away there are considerable time and expense issues affecting decisions to be made at court. Ultimately, although the supporters pleaded guilty to the pitch encroachment charge, they did not have to face a Football Banning Order (FBO) application as a result of legal representation and a sensible decision by the CPS. None of the supporters were ‘risk’ and there were no features of the case which could reasonably convince a court that a FBO was necessary. 

Jubilation or a ‘moment of madness’ is not an excuse for going on the pitch but where there is no violence, disorder or risk to other supporters can we not have proper consideration given to how the supporters are dealt with? Why must this result in receiving a criminal record? Having a criminal conviction may adversely affect those who apply for jobs, insurance cover, visas for overseas holidays, tenancy agreements, university applications or if they wish to carry out voluntary work. 

What consideration was given by Dorset Police to say, a police caution, or even a conditional caution which may not be as detrimental to the supporters? If there was none, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the Grealish incident and subsequent outcry affected their decision.

Ultimately the NUFC fans – as have many, many others – paid a high price for their goal celebrations. The cost of travel home the day after the match and then back down to Poole for their court appearances, lost day of work, legal fees, prosecution costs and fines.

Factor into that, the cost of police, CPS and court time and the cost to the public purse, and questions must be asked. Yes, there is a huge clamour around pitch incursions and some concern too around player safety. I genuinely understand that and would say don’t forget that pitch side security features need to be part of the debate. At the same time cool, rational heads are needed, especially against a back drop of competing demands on shrinking police budgets.

Was it in the public interest to prosecute the Newcastle United Supporters? My answer would be an emphatic ‘No’.  Fans can still face sanctions, but surely in the majority of cases of celebratory pitch incursion there are alternatives as mentioned earlier. What evidence is there to conclude that only prosecution and banning orders are the best deterrent? To the best of my knowledge, despite the rhetoric, none whatsoever. 

The last word in this case goes to Anthony Armstrong of the NUST: 

Some of these lads involved got up at 4am, travelled 350 miles by coach to watch their team score a last-minute equaliser. This should’ve been a time for jubilation or as some may say, to “gan crackers” with their mates for a few seconds before facing another 350mile trip back home.

The above was the case for a mass of Newcastle fans further up in the stand who were celebrating wildly with each other, it is sad that seven lads at the low barrier, near the tight narrow walkway to get out of the Vitality ended up on the side of the pitch after celebrating and unfortunately arrests were made.

It’s not great that showing passion for your football team and celebrating a last-minute goal can cause criminal proceedings. Whilst I appreciate and wholly support the need for safety of fans and players, I’d urge any police to exercise discretion to save themselves time and also avoid fans of the beautiful game being penalised in unfortunate circumstances going forward.

To support the lads who celebrated a proper raker from Matt Ritchie and had to endure a second 700mile round trip for the privilege, please donate what you can here.

Watching Football Is Not A Crime! is part of the FSF’s ongoing drive to monitor the police in their dealings with football fans and work with them to ensure that all fans are treated fairly and within the law. You can contact FSF Caseworker Amanda Jacks via: 

Twitter: @FSF_Faircop

Email: [email protected]

Thanks to PA Images for the picture used in this blog.

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