I have written many blogs surrounding a wide range of legal issues in football. Never did I think I would be in a position where the sexual abuse of young footballers would be so prevalent that it would be worthy of a blog. It would appear that Andy Woodward, a childhood hero of mine as a young Bury F.C. fan, would expose the darkest secret in English football.
Woodward bravely spoke out, discussing the vile abuse he suffered whilst a young footballer at Crewe Alexandra F.C. He has explained how it has dogged his life and caused him much physical and emotional distress, including on pitch panic attacks and an early retirement from football at the age of just 29. Since Woodward spoke out others have followed including former Crewe player Steve Walters and former Spurs, Liverpool, Manchester City and England player Paul Stewart.
The NSPCC have also set up a specialist hotline for those affected by sexual abuse within football to seek help and therapy. Within just the first 2 hours of this hotline being open the NSPCC received 50 calls. Further to this, the player’s union, the PFA, have also come out in support of its members that have been subject to vile abuse at the hands of paedophiles such as Barry Bennell and other currently unnamed coaches.
It is important to analyse the legal position of the football abuse scandal as there are both Civil and Criminal law implications.
When a young footballer joins an academy or a youth team, the Club associated to said academy or youth team must have safeguarding procedures in place to protect the children under their tutelage. Their is a legal duty of care placed upon the coaches and the club to protect those under their care.
It is clear that in the case of Woodward and other young footballers this duty has been breached. In person injury civil law cases, the victim of such a breach of duty should be entitled to damages to compensate them for the injury they have suffered. In the case of the footballers this injury has tended to be psychological, but in some cases it may have been physical. Further to this the footballer could be in a position to claim special damages for things such as loss of earnings if it can be proven that they either had to retire early, or did not reach their earning potential as a result of the psychological torment leading from the abuse. Damages could also include the cost of counselling, something that would be welcomed by the NSPCC and PFA.
The main worry for football clubs is that they could be liable, and susceptible to claims from the abused footballers:
- Club’s could be sued on the basis that they were negligent in failing to protect their young players under their care;
- Club’s could be held to be accountable on the basis of the legal principal of ‘Vicarious Liability’. This principal states that an employer can be liable for the acts or omissions of its employees, provided it can be shown that they took place in the course of their employment.
In the English legal system, there is a limitation period of three years in which a personal injury claims for compensation must be made. Should a claim not be made within this period then a claim would be ‘statute barred’. Note that the limitation period starts on the day in which the injury is caused or the earliest date upon which the injured person had the knowledge, which he might reasonably have been expected to acquire, to bring a legal action.
Child abuse and sexual abuse cases tend to be the exception. Usually this because the victim will remain silent for some years after the abuse. This is the case in this instance. However, the court has a discretion to disapply the limitation period. When deciding to disapply the limitation period the court will balance the prejudice against the defendant in bringing a claim and the weight of evidence carried by the claimant. Essentially the Court will look to remove the limitation period in cases where there would appear to be a strong case for the claimant.
In the case of the abused footballers, I do not think that limitation will be such an issue. The amount of players that have come forward and the weight of evidence this brings will guide the court. Also the public nature of the cases would be a big factor that the court will consider when exercising it’s direction. Further to this one of the main culprits, Bennell, is a convicted paedophile.
From a Criminal point of view, those coaches who have abused young players are likely to be investigated by the police and charged with offences of historic sexual abuse. This area of law is vast as the offences can range from grooming of minors to engaging in sexual activity with a child. It would appear inevitable that an investigation similar to Operation Yewtree (the police investigation of Jimmy Saville and other media personalities) will be launched to bring those that have committed these horrific acts against young footballers be brought to justice.
CM Solicitors have a wealth of experience when dealing with cases of sexual abuse and child abuse. Should you or someone you know have been a victim of Barry Bennell or another football coach please do not hesitate to contact me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or our Director and Head of Civil Litigation, Michael Shaw (email@example.com).