Legal issues – EHF and HBL

In the interest of Fair Play

The European Handball Federation recently announced the introduction of a new internal legal system effective July 1.  Having seen reasons to criticize both procedural aspects and the results of the decision-making in some cases in recent years, I now congratulate the EHF to this necessary and important action.   When questions are raised about the adherence to correct procedures and about apparent mismatches between the nature of an illegal action and the severity of the punishment, then the entire system may lose its credibility.

The EHF legal system will now have a lower level with the name ‘EHF Court of Handball’ (replacing the misleading concept of Arbitration Tribunal).  This Court will deal primarily with competition-related cases (while the EHF Office will serve as first instance for administrative and transfer matters).  The exception regarding competition matters involves those events which are played in a tournament form, and where therefore decisions typically need to be taken from one day to the next, by the Disciplinary Commissions or Delegates responsible at the site.

An ‘EHF Court of Appeal’ constitutes the second level, for all matters (except during a European Championship tournament where a Jury plays that role).  In addition, there is an arbitration mechanism, ‘on top of’ or outside the two bodies just mentioned.  It is external to the EHF and completely independent, even though it has been established by the EHF Congress.   Very specific rules apply for the dispute resolution of this body, and in a sense it is, for EHF issues, an entity somewhat similar in nature to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).  Perhaps it will serve the purpose of avoiding that matters escalate to the formidable level of CAS…

An important component of the new legal system is the introduction of new Legal Regulations, a List of Penalties and a Catalog of Administrative Sanctions.   My review of these documents suggests that the EHF now has in place a very solid basis for handling especially the often very sensitive and highly publicized issues involved in the EHF competitions.  There are reasons to believe that a more effective and speedy resolution can be reached, without worries about major inconsistencies.  The structure for penalties seems generally appropriate, with scope for quite substantial action in terms of both suspensions and financial repercussions in serious cases.

Of course, as the prescribed penalties for each type of situation are normally expressed either as a very broad range or in the form of a minimum, the key will be the early precedents when the new system is beginning to be applied.  A tendency to be very soft and regularly choose the lowest punishments possible would send a very undesirable signal.  The provisions will not in themselves serve as a deterrent; they require that the decision-makers have some courage.

The German Handball Bundesliga (HBL) has just come out with a somewhat surprising new regulation at the start of the new season.  In recent years, there has been an unfortunate tendency in the direction of increasingly frequent and ‘uninhibited’ criticism against referees, on the part of coaches and players in a very public manner.  This has contributed to a negative atmosphere, not just in the individual case but more generally in the co-existence between teams and referees.  It has also tended to have an effect on how spectators and the general public understand what is permissible in terms of similar actions.

Accordingly, the HBL is now, quite appropriately, finding it necessary to focus on new regulations for this kind of situations.  Clearly, the intention is to avoid the spontaneous and public negative reactions, for instance in a press conference, right after the game.  Team representatives should have a chance to calm down and perhaps review video recordings and be more certain of the facts before speaking up.  So it is now forbidden for players, team officials and club representatives to express themselves in public regarding referees or other match officials in any way whatsoever within 48 hours of a game.

As has been noted in the media, perhaps one needs to introduce some further clarifications or at least make sure that new regulation is applied with some common sense.   An excessively literal or bureaucratic application might backfire.  It would hardly seem to be punishable if a coach or player spontaneously praises a referee when meeting right after the game.   And the definition of what is meant by public expressions is not really very clear.   Similarly, if someone comments on a game of another team that they witnessed, should this be covered etc?   So the intention is laudable, and personally I am certainly in favor of offering more protection for the referees, but the success may depend on the details of the interpretation of this new idea.