(represented by Fergus A. Feeney Solicitor)
Irish Soccer Referees Society (Roscommon Branch)
1.1 The case concerns a claim by Mr. Robert Stokes that the Irish Soccer Referees Society (Roscommon Branch) discriminated against him on the Traveller community ground in terms of section 6(2)(i) of the Employment Equality Act 1998 in contravention of section 13 of the Act in relation to entry to an occupation as a soccer referee.
2.1 The complainant claims that the respondent discriminated against him on the Traveller community ground when he applied to transfer to the Roscommon branch of the Irish Soccer Referees Society. His request to become a member of that branch was refused. The respondent rejects the complainant's allegation that it discriminated against the complainant on the Traveller community ground and submits that it does not discriminate as to who may join the association other than that they must abide by the Constitution of the society and meet the criteria set out in the rules for membership.
2.2 The complainant referred a complaint under the Employment Equality Act 1998 to the Director of Equality Investigations on 12 October 2004. On 28 February 2006, in accordance with her powers under section 75 of that Act, the Director delegated the case to Mary Rogerson, an Equality Officer, for investigation, hearing and decision and for the exercise of other relevant functions of the Director under Part VII of the Act. A submission was received from the complainant on 10 April 2006 and a written submission was received from the respondent on 24 May 2006. A joint hearing of the claim was held on 27 November 2006.
3. SUMMARY OF THE COMPLAINANT'S SUBMISSION
3.1 The complainant submits that he is a fully qualified soccer referee and holds a referee card from the FAI. He submits that he was a member of the Irish Soccer Referees' Society (Midlands Branch) and was employed in the midlands area as a referee in the local leagues and the schoolboy league. He formerly played with Longford town and would also have played on the local league and as such was known in the area. As a result of having played in the area, he found it difficult to referee matches as some of the players and their families would have known him during his playing career.
3.2 He submits that as a result of the difficulties he was encountering in refereeing local matches, he decided to make an application to become a member of the Roscommon branch of the Irish Soccer Referees' Society. In November 2003, he put in a written request to transfer to the Roscommon branch and he received a letter on 15 February 2004 refusing his application. He wrote again to the Roscommon branch seeking membership and was refused again on 25 March 2004.
3.3 The complainant submits that he has complied fully with the Constitution of the Irish Soccer Referees' Society in relation to his application for a transfer to the Roscommon branch. He submits that other referees have applied and been transferred from the Midlands Branch to the Roscommon Branch.
3.4 The complainant submits that while he was waiting for his transfer to go through he was refereeing in the Roscommon area for a couple of months. He was assessed by Mr. JC on his refereeing ability while he was refereeing in Roscommon. Referees are graded on a scale of four to one and as a result of his assessment; he was initially graded at 4 and then progressed favourably to a grade 2. He submits that since he became a referee, he has not been subject to any disciplinary procedure.
3.5 He submits that he has fully complied with the procedure set down for transfer from the Midlands Branch to the Roscommon Branch of the Irish Soccer Referees' Society and that no reason has been furnished by the Roscommon branch in relation to the refusal of his application. He submits that he believes that the Roscommon branch is discriminating against him on the grounds that he is a member of the Traveller community. He submits in evidence copies of two articles taken from the local papers in relation to an AGM held by the Roscommon branch in May 2004 in which both are highlighting the fact that more referees are needed. He submits that this raises the question as to why his application was refused if more referees are needed.
4. SUMMARY OF THE RESPONDENT'S SUBMISSION
4.1 The respondent submits that it is not an employer. It is an association of soccer referees that is recognised by the FAI as the representative body for registered referees in relation to the role of a referee as a football official. The Society is constituted by a network of branches based mainly on county boundaries. The ISRS is indiscriminate as to who may join the association other than that they must abide by the Constitution of the society and meet the criteria set out in those rules for membership. A transfer from one branch to another branch is not completed by the member's branch approving such transfer but when the transferring member is accepted as a member of the new branch. Until such time as the procedure is complete, s/he remains a member of the original branch.
4.2 The complainant joined the Midlands Branch in 2002 and he subsequently applied to transfer to the Roscommon branch. It is branch procedure that every person who wishes to join the branch must make written application followed by a meeting with the officers of the branch. This custom is in place for the last ten years. At the meeting, the complainant informed officers that he was not being allocated matches in the Midland Branch and submitted that was the reason for seeking a transfer to the Roscommon branch. When the Roscommon branch contacted the Midland branch to verify the complainant's reason for leaving, they were provided with information which contradicted the information given by the complainant.
4.3 In the complainant's written request to transfer to the Roscommon branch, he made reference to his experience as a "former player in the Roscommon and District League" as being an asset that would assist him in his duties in that league and also that the Roscommon league was much closer for travel. This view is inconsistent with that expressed in the correspondence dated 8 October 2004 forwarded by the complainant's solicitor to the Tribunal. That correspondence indicates that the complainant was experiencing difficulties in refereeing local matches because he formerly played with Longford Town and would have played in the local league and as such was known in the area.
4.4 The complainant was informed on at least two occasions that despite the Roscommon branch being unable to accede to the complainant's request for membership that as a member of the ISRS, he was allowed to appeal the decision of the Roscommon branch to the Council of the ISRS. The complainant did not avail of that option.
5. CONCLUSIONS OF THE EQUALITY OFFICER
5.1 The complainant alleges that the respondent discriminated against him on the Traveller community ground in relation to membership of the Society. In this case, I will consider whether the respondent directly discriminated against the complainant on the Traveller community ground in terms of section 6(2)(i) of the Employment Equality Acts 1998 and 2004 in contravention of section 13 of the Act in relation to membership of the Society. In making my Decision in this case, I have taken into account all of the evidence, both written and oral, submitted to me by the parties.
Claim of discrimination on the disability ground:
5.2 Section 6(1) of the Employment Equality Acts 1998 and 2004 provides that:
..... discrimination shall be taken to occur where -
(a) a person is treated less favourably than another person is, has been or would be treated in a comparable situation on any of the grounds specified in subsection (2) (in this Act referred to as the 'discriminatory grounds') .....
Section 6(2) provides that as between any two persons, the discriminatory grounds are, inter alia:
that one is a member of the Traveller community and the other is not (in this Act referred to as "the Traveller community ground")
5.3 Section 13 of the Employment Equality Acts 1998 and 2004 provides, inter alia, that a body which controls entry to, or the carrying on of, a profession, vocation or occupation shall not discriminate against a person in relation to membership of that body or any benefits provided by it or in relation to entry to, or the carrying on of that profession, vocation or occupation. The respondent submits that the respondent is an association of soccer referees that is recognised by the Football Association of Ireland as the representative body for registered referees. The complainant wished to transfer from the Midland Branch of the Irish Soccer Referees' Society to the Roscommon Branch in order that he could be allocated games by the Roscommon and District League in the Roscommon area. The Irish Soccer Referees' Society (Roscommon Branch) refused to accept him into membership of the Branch and he could not therefore be employed on an ongoing basis as a referee in the Roscommon area. The Irish Soccer Referees' Society (Roscommon Branch) falls within the ambit of section 13 as it controlled the complainant's entry to occupation as a referee in that area.
5.4 The Constitution of the Irish Soccer Referees' Society provides at section 3 that
"Each branch shall consist of branch members who are, at the time, members of the Society and no person shall be entitled to be a branch member of more than one branch at any time."
It also provides at section 4 in relation to members that:
"No member may join another branch without prior clearance from the Branch of which he is a member."
In this particular case, the complainant had sought and been granted clearance from the Midlands Branch to join the Roscommon branch. The respondent submitted that it is branch procedure that every person who wishes to join the branch must make written application followed by a meeting with the officers of the branch. The complainant met with three officers of the respondent on 18 December 2003. The respondent submits that at that meeting, the complainant informed the officers that he was not being allocated matches in the Midland branch as the reason for leaving. It further submits that when it contacted the Midland branch to verify the reason for leaving, they provided information which contradicted the complainant's reason for leaving. The complainant submitted that at that meeting he referred only to a difficulty being allocated games on a Sunday.
5.5 At the hearing, Mr. TC as representative of the respondent submitted that the difficulty with the complainant's application to transfer to that Branch of the Association was that he told the officials at the meeting on 18 December 2003 one story and that they got a different story from the Midlands Branch. He further submitted that the reason that someone wanted to transfer from one branch to another is very relevant and that jumping from one branch to another is not automatically permitted and that there must be a reason to move branch. I note that the only requirement in relation to the transferring from one branch to another in the Constitution is that prior clearance must be obtained from the branch of which one is currently a member. According to the Constitution, a member is one who has had an affiliation fee paid on his behalf by his branch and who upon receipt of his Affiliation fee has had his name entered on the Society Roll Book of Membership. I note that the Constitution also provides at section 3(i) that each branch may adopt its own rules and regulations but these shall not be at variance with the Society's Constitution which takes precedence on all such issues. The respondent did not submit that it had adopted any rules and regulations and none were submitted in evidence.
5.6 The respondent submitted that the meeting of 18 December 2003 at which the complainant met the three officials from the branch was an informal meeting at which no minutes were taken. The minutes from the meeting on 5 February 2004 state in relation to the complainant's application to join:
"After a long discussion and a lengthy report from the officers of the branch who had met with Robbie Stokes it was proposed by [TC] and seconded by [OB] that his application would not be accepted but that we would write back to him and ask him to have his problems sorted out with the Midland branch."
There was also a counter proposal that the complainant would be accepted into membership and that proposal was rejected. It appears that after the meeting on 18 December 2003, the officials did not, in accordance with natural justice, seek the complainant's response to the information provided by the Midlands branch in relation to the allocation of matches. If the respondent had done so, it would have allowed the complainant an opportunity to clarify that his difficulty was not with getting games to referee but with getting games on a Sunday. Instead, the respondent has sought to justify the refusal to allow him to transfer on the basis of conflicting information.
5.7 If the reason for wanting to leave one branch of the association is relevant when seeking to transfer to another branch, that should be clearly set out in advance and communicated to applicants particularly as there is no reference to reason for leaving in the Constitution. It is also the case that at an AGM of the Roscommon branch held in May 2004, details of which were reported in the local newspaper (1), Mr. TC referred to a shortage of referees and that five or six more referees would be needed for the new season. The report also refers to Mr. TC expressing "the hope that the Branch would receive an injection of new referees for the coming season and encouraged anyone who had an interest in taking up the job to have a go." The complainant had complied with the rules of the Constitution in that he had sought approval to transfer from the branch of which he was already a member. He had not been the subject of any disciplinary proceedings and at the time of his application, there was in reality a shortage of referees in the Roscommon area. Minutes of the meeting on 18 December 2003 with officials were not taken and there was a complete lack of transparency in relation to the complainant's application. Additionally, the principles of natural justice were not adhered to and in the circumstances, I find that the complainant has established a prima facie case of discrimination on the Traveller community ground.
5.8 The complainant's solicitor wrote to the respondent on 7 April 2004 seeking a copy of the entire file relating to his client's application for membership and asking that the complainant's application be reconsidered. On 27 April 2004, the respondent responded that it saw no reason to reconsider its decision and sought a copy of (i) the complainant's registration fee paid to the FAI or a copy of his registration card, (ii) a copy of his affiliation to the Irish Soccer Referees' Society for 2004 and (iii) a full and comprehensive list of appointments he received while a member of the Midland branch from 1 August 2003 to 21 November 2003. I am unclear why the respondent requested the information as it indicated that it saw no reason to reconsider its decision. Mr. TC on behalf of the respondent stated that as communication was received from a solicitor, the matter was ongoing and that was why the information was requested. I consider that any information required in relation to an application to join or transfer to the association should be requested prior to consideration of the application and not after. Furthermore, in this particular case, the respondent had at that time indicated that it saw no reason to reconsider its decision. I find that the complainant has established a prima facie case of less favourable treatment on the Traveller community ground in relation to the contents of the letter which the respondent has failed to rebut.
6.1 On the basis of the foregoing, I find that the respondent discriminated against the complainant on the Traveller community ground in terms of section 6(2)(i) of the Employment Equality Acts 1998 and 2004 contrary to section 13 of the Act in relation to membership of the Irish Soccer Referees' Society (Roscommon Branch).
6.2 In accordance with section 82 of the Employment Equality Act 1998, I hereby order that the respondent:
(i) pay the complainant the sum of €5000.00 compensation for the effects of the act of discrimination. This figure represents compensation for infringement of his rights under equality legislation in relation to discrimination and does not include any element relating to remuneration.
19 January 2007
(1) The Roscommon Champion, 11 May 2004