UEFA open disciplinary proceedings against AS Saint-Étienne: A Review of Article 16 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations, Strict Liability & Determining Sanctions

Image source: PA

UEFA opened disciplinary proceedings against French side, St Etienne, on Friday after a number of fans set off flares during their Europa League fixture with Manchester United, on 16 February 2017.

The club has been charged with three offences under Article 16(2) of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations (DR):

  • Setting off fireworks (flares)
  • Throwing of objects 
  • Improper conduct of supporters

UEFA has not indicated that any action will be taken against host club, Manchester United, in relation to their organisation of the match under Article 16(1) of the UEFA DR - action may have been taken if the governing body considered that the club failed to put in place adequate security measures, that were reasonably expected, prior and during the match.

Under Article 16(1) "host clubs and national associations are responsible for order and security both inside and around the stadium before, during and after matches. They are liable for incidents of any kind and may be subject to disciplinary measures and directives unless they can prove that they have not been negligent in any way in the organisation of the match."

Article 16(2) of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations & Strict Liability

Contrary to Art.16(1), 16(2) applies strict liability and therefore the club can still be held liable for the behaviour of its supporters even if that club can show that it was not their fault and they took all reasonable measures but ultimately, the breach was not prevented.

Art. 16(2) states that "all associations and clubs are liable for inappropriate behaviour on the part of their supporters and may be subject to disciplinary measures and directives even if they can prove the absence of any negligence in relation to the organisation of the match."

PSV Eindhoven previously attempted to challenge the strict liability provision under Art.16(2), back in 2003, but this was dismissed and the legality of the strict liability approach was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). It was ruled that strict liability was required as UEFA did not have direct disciplinary authority against the supporters of a club but only against European football associations and clubs. To remove strict liability would leave UEFA "helpless" and the doctrine was, thus, required if UEFA's goals and standards were to have any chance to succeed: "promote football in a spirit of peace, understanding and fair play, without discrimination on the basis of politics, sex, religion or race." The CAS stated that the provision was not necessarily to directly punish the club itself but to indirectly punish the supporters by "the condemnation pronounced against their club."

Examples of inappropriate behaviour include: invasion or attempted invasion of the field of play; the throwing of objects; lighting of fireworks; use of laser pointers or other similar objects; use of gestures, words, objects to transmit political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative messages; acts of damage; causing a disturbance during national anthems; and any other lack of order or discipline observed inside or around the stadium.

As stated above, St Etienne find themselves on-the-hook for fan behaviour that includes the lighting of fireworks (flares in this case), throwing of objects and improper conduct.

Determining Sanctions

In determining sanctions, UEFA, under Art.17(1) will consider the objective and subjective elements of each case along with any aggravating and mitigating circumstances, reducing or increasing sanctions, accordingly. Clubs may choose, for example, to disclose evidence such as warnings given to fans prior to games about behaviour and information about stadium regulations and security at away grounds along with educating fans of the consequences of such behaviour. Under Art.17(2), UEFA can use it's discretion to scale down or dispose of a sanction, in its entirety, if the club has provided evidence that UEFA considers was decisive in establishing or uncovering the breach.

Possible sanctions for breaches of Art. 16(2) include monetary fines and bans on fans attending events. The sanction, however, must be proportionate to the seriousness of the offence.

In December 2016, UEFA fined FC Kobenhavn €19,000 after a section of their fans let off flares in the away section of Leicester City's stadium back in October 2016. On that occasion, FC Kobenhavn were charged with the one infringement compared to St Etienne's three infringements. However, in September 2016, Borussia Dortmund, was charged with the infringements of (1) letting off fireworks and (2) throwing objects and received a €15,000 fine, in return. Other recent fines for similar infringements include Liverpool FC: €16,000 fine (setting off fireworks and crowd disturbances) and Sevilla FC: €17,000 (crowd disturbance and throwing objects).

Given previous case law on the matter, it is likely that St Etienne will receive a fine in the region of €15,000-€20,000 (depending on previous offences).

In imposing strict liability, UEFA makes it clear that it will not accept inappropriate fan behaviour and clubs will be held accountable, as a result. It is considered, by many, that inappropriate behaviour can have serious consequences for a sport and therefore by imposing strict liability, sporting organisations and fans alike are encouraged to take all reasonable and practicable steps to prevent and deter inappropriate behaviour, where possible.

The UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body will meet to deal with the St Etienne case on 23 March 2017.

IMPORTANT: This post is not intended to be a legal briefing, it is not intended to be a statement of the law and no action should be taken in reliance on it without specific legal advice.

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