Wednesday, 23 May 2012


Disciplining members is an issue that every bridge faces from time to time. It is the nature of the game and the tragedy of the human condition. But even when  clubs have formal disciplinary procedures in place , as drawn up in their constitutions , massive problems can still arise. These usually involve situations where there has been a lamentable failure to comply with all the requirements of natural justice.
Problems tend to surface when no officer on the committee has the appropriate legal knowledge or training ,  with a firm grasp of what lawyers call  " due process ". Ignorance of these matters usually means only one thing : they get overlooked. Moreover , it's often the case that  the wider membership remains blissfully ignorant of whether their organisation  even has a written constitution , or if it does , what its contents might be. Assuming then the committee members are aware of the club's constitution , it's not guaranteed that they know the precise meaning , and legal implications , of the words used in the document , and how exactly the rules , regarding disciplinary procedures ,  should be interpreted and implemented  if they are to comply with rules of natural justice.
Paying lip service compliance to the procedural steps laid in the disciplinary process does not necessarily add up to compliance with rules of natural justice. Here the decision makers need to do more than go through the procedural motions : they must set out and embrace fully a spirit of fairness , impartiality , objectivity and open-mindedness. But this of course is easier said than done.
Far too many committee members, when dealing with unpopular troublemakers , enter discussions  with  closed minds ,  and a fierce determination not to be persuaded  or distracted  from " taking appropriate action ". The idea that anyone  can become an impartial , objective , and unbiased person ,  completely open to persuasion at the drop of a hat ,  is pure fantasy. The human condition does not allow it , but the courts will look to see if club management teams have set out to achieve such noble ideals. 
Freedom from bias perhaps is the hardest thing to achieve in small bridge clubs, where close, cosy relationships are common place ,  and everyone has " an opinion " on everybody else. This main risk of course is that committee members may base their decisions on a negative experience or encounter with the accused , which is bound to prejudice their judgement. In such circumstances it would be both prudent and wise for any jaundiced committee member to own up to  his/her personal animosity towards the accused ,  thereby abstaining from any discussion , or voting , on the matter in question.
In a recent Scottish case involving a golfer , challenging his expulsion from his club , a judicial review was called for.  With so many mistakes made ,  the club was rounded upon  by the judge for operating its disciplinary process  ( and AGMs ) in a manner and way that resembled a kangaroo court .
So where did this golf committee go wrong ?
Firstly , the petitioner was not invited to attend the disciplinary hearing  which sealed his fate . Indeed, he was never informed , or forewarned , that his membership was at risk, and possibly up for termination . He was not made aware of the other charges that were made against him at this meeting , denying him the opportunity to state his case or offer a defence.  The committee had acted in an  ultra vires way when using AGMs to secure endorsements from the wider membership for its questionable decisions. Indeed , the club had breached rules of natural justice on numerous occasions. It was also held that the petitioner had a right to be present to see that rules of natural justice were being observed ,  but since he was denied this right , decisions leading to both suspension and expulsion were therefore declared null and void .  This oversight by the committee proved to be the final nail in the club's financial coffin. 
Not surprisingly , the upshot of this case was that the expelled golfer secured a  judicial ruling for reinstatement ,  with his costs and expenses to be met by the club.
So important lessons need to be taken on board by all bridge club committees.  For if they take on quasi-judicial proceedings then additional  legal obligations fall upon them . The notion of  giving the accused a fair summary of the reasons for the decision to expel him may be a discretionary right , but one which should be given him anyway when considering the degree of  seriousness attached to cases involving expulsions.  Similarly ,  giving the accused the opportunity beforehand to see the evidence put forward by the committee to support their decisions is also a wise and prudent move. But more importantly , no member should ever be expelled without his/her presence at the disciplinary hearing.  And to justify not allowing the accused to attend a hearing simply  " because there seemed no point in him/her having one " is a damning indictment of bias and prejudgement. Failing to seek legal advice at crucial times is also another colossal oversight. Failing to allow the accused legal representation at an internal appeal hearing might well be viewed by any court as " a little naive " , if the committee wishes to demonstrate its fair and impartial attitude and approach. 
When the remote possibility of a court action suddenly changes to one of a racing certainty , club committees must hope that within their constitution rules and regulations  they have the power to refer the dispute to mediation or arbitration. In the absence of such a flexible option , then such a move should be sought anyway with the cooperation of the petitioner.  It is far better to act in a prudent and wise way at the outset ,  rather than adopting a confrontational stance.  Common sense dictates that both sides are far better off seeking and negotiating a compromise position,  because otherwise the legal bills will start to rocket. Sensible choices in life usually involve picking the lesser of two evils. So unless a club is 100% confident it has  scrupulously followed its own disciplinary procedures without any hint of bias ,  or acting in bad faith , and any breaches of natural justice rules, then the only other sensible option to follow up is this :  seek agreement to organise a rehearing of the case by a completely outside , totally impartial , independent    body , where legal expertise is not in short supply .......with both sides fully prepared to accept and uphold its decision .     

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