GAA and the Law – The Relationship Between the Field and the Courtroom

6th February 2015

Welcome to our second weekly look at GAA and the Law.

Each week we provide a briefing on one specific area of law to try and explain and inform what players, club officials and supporters need to know in GAAland.  Last week we focused on player injury and claims.  This week we talk about the relationship between the playing field and the criminal courtroom.

Gaelic Football and Hurling are contact sports.   Players and spectators alike expect hits, tough tackling and commitment to the cause.   There is a fine line however between commitment and criminality.

Traditionally there has been a view of those in GAAland that what goes on the field stays on the field.   There has been a high level of physicality tolerated between players all in the cut and thrust of competition.   While this might be the traditional view the criminal law does extend beyond the white line of the playing field.

The laws of assault and injury in criminal law stem from the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997.  There are three types of assault that exist.  They are more commonly known by their numbered section.

  • Section 2 Assault:  This is the most common form of assault.  It is where there is actual or potential physical contact between two people.   In addition there must be no consent between giver and the taker.  Usually speaking there has to be an impact although this is not always the case.      The act must be intentional or reckless and not accidental.  Contact will only be considered and assault where it happens outside what is considered normal activity.
  • Section 3 Assault: This offence has all the same elements as a Section 2 assault except for the added injury or harm.  The term harm can seem vague but it is not.  Harm equals injury and generally an injury with permanent or semi-permanent consequences.   This is most commonly seen in the form of broken noses, jaws, eye sockets, laceration or cuts to the face.
  • Section 4 Assault: Thankfully this offence is rarely seen.  Just as before there must be contact between two players that is not accidental but this time the outcome is serious harm.   Again the term serious harm is not defined but in simple terms is should be taken to mean a permanent disability such as loss of limb or part of a limb or permanent loss of sight.

Taking the elements of the offence, how can an assault take place on a field of play?  There is contact all the time and that contact is during a game considered normal activity.  However, there are times when contact is not normal.

The most common time when an assault is complained of is when there is an off the ball incident.   Often we can see shoulder charges when a player is lining up a dead ball situation such as a line ball or free.   We see the follow through when a foul is being committed – the extra elements beyond the foul tackle.  In those situations not only has the player breached the rules but may have breached the law.

Any one of these assaults can take place in an instant.   What is looked at is the action and the result.   An off the ball shoulder may in certain circumstances result in a Section 2 assault.  A deliberate swing of a hurl breaking a player’s wrist may amount to a Section 3 assault.  A deliberate punch into the eye of an opponent causing loss of sight will certainly result in a Section 4 assault.  All can happen without warning but have far reaching consequences.

While the GAA has its own internal disciplinary mechanisms such as the black, yellow and red cards the criminal law over reaches those rules.

For an offence to have alleged, a complaint needs to be made.   The person making the complaint does not necessarily have to be the injured party.  It can be any one that witnessed the event and who can give a first-hand account of what happened.   Sometimes the victim may not know what actually happened and will depend on eye witnesses.

It is very rare to see a complaint from a field of play of a Section 2 Assault. The game is now more physical in both codes, both sexes and at all levels that it ever has been.  Getting thumped is part of the territory.  In theory it can happen.

Section 3 Assaults are broken nose and broken jaw territory.   Not every injury of that type will result in a complaint which in turn courtroom appearance.  For an injury of that seriousness to become an Assault complaint there must be intent.  Intent is that the giver intended or was reckless as to whether his or her actions by themselves or with implement such as a hurl would cause harm to the taker.  Did player A intend to deliberately hurt or cause harm to Player B.

It is inevitable that where there is a permanent disability and where it happened other than by accident a complaint of Section 4 assault will follow.

All complaints of criminal behaviour including assaults are made to An Garda Síochána.  They begin where the taker or an eye witness makes a statement of complaint.   The statement is taken by a Garda.   Any person who can back up the story told will also be asked for a statement.   In time then the case is gathered together by the Gardaí.  If there is an injury the doctor or surgeon who treated the injury is asked to prepare a report of what they found and what is their prognosis.  Sometimes the incident may have been recorded on television or video.   If so, the footage will be sought out and used also.   The Director of Public Prosecutions is then asked by the Gardaí to review the evidence gathered and make a decision if a charge of Assault is to be brought.

If a giver, whether they are a player, backroom staff, supporter or most unlikely a match official, is charged with an offence of Assault they will very quickly find themselves with a date to appear in court.   All Assault charges whether a Section 2, 3 or 4 begin in the District Court.  Sometimes if the injury is serious the case can be sent forward to the Circuit Court where in certain instances the case will be heard before a judge and jury.  Whatever happens given the seriousness of the charge and what is at stake no accused person should try to represent themselves in court  – consult a solicitor.

The Court process can take some time.   An accused person must know what the case is against them before deciding whether to accept the charge and plead guilty or test the evidence and plead not guilty.    Legal advice will assist is helping make the right decision.  Very often the team with the injured player come forward in support of their man or woman and will volunteer statements and the players on the opposing side will equally have seen nothing and make no statement. That’s not law though, that’s human nature.

If an Assault case is contested this means that the giver/assailant asks the court to decide if there is enough evidence to prove that they did do it.  This is an entitlement of every person who pleads not guilty.   It is seen across all areas of criminal law from a speeding ticket to murder.

There will be a criminal trial if a person pleads not guilty.   This involves the Gardaí calling evidence to make their case to the court.   All people who have made statements of complaint can be called to tell the court what they saw or didn’t see.  When called the solicitor for the giver/accused can cross examine them on their account and test their credibility.  There is no obligation on the giver/accused to give their version or defend themselves.

If the court accepts the evidence the giver/accused will be found guilty.  When this happens a criminal conviction will be imposed along with a court fine and in certain instances a prison sentence.  When any person pleads not guilty to any charge and the case is proven against them there is no leniency shown to them.   They have rolled the dice and lost.  They have caused the Assault and made the victim prove that they did it.   Judges in such circumstances don’t show mercy and there is no reason why they should.

If a giver/accused accepts that he or she did it then there is no trial.   This is called pleading guilty.   When this happens the Court will be told by the Gardaí an outline of what happened.  The role of the accused solicitor in that case is to address the Assault and if there is an explanation as to why it happened this will be told to the Court.  When this happens the accused in accepting his or her wrongdoing will be shown great leniency by the Court and a lighter sentence will be handed down.   A criminal conviction will be recorded but only in the most extreme circumstances will there be a risk of a prison sentence.

If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself as part of this story make sure to take proper advice before committing to your decision.   The implications one way or the other are far too great.