On 15 May 2014 a major topic in sports law, match-fixing, made worldwide press for two reasons: further allegations of corruption in cricket made by former New Zealand international cricketer Lou Vincent and the release of the Sorbonne-ICSS The Last Bet for Modern Sport report in Paris. 

On the same day in the United Kingdom, there was an important match-fixing appeal decision released on allegations made against former world number five, Stephen Lee. The allegations were brought by the world governing body of snooker, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA), in relation to breaching the governing body’s rules against the passing of inside information and match-fixing in respect of seven matches throughout 2008 and 2009 - including at the World Championships.

The appeal ruling, and the decisions leading to it, raise important issues for tribunals in sport, which are equally applicable to regulatory tribunals in other professions including: the wide ranging powers of regulatory tribunals, costs, bias and the need for specialist legal advice and representation.  

Initially the case was handled by the police and The Gambling Commission. However, they dropped their investigation on 2 October 2012 - deciding they did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute on the criminal ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ standard. The WPBSA were then able to bring their own disciplinary procedures for which they only needed to satisfy the civil ‘balance of probabilities’ standard. The first hearing was chaired by Adam Lewis QC, a pre-eminent sports barrister, sitting as the WPBSA’s Independent Disciplinary Hearing Board appointed through the UK’s specialist sports dispute resolution service Sport Resolutions. Mr Lewis handed judgment down on 16 September 2013, finding Mr Lee guilty, then, on 24 September 2013, served him with a 12 year suspension and ordered that Mr Lee should pay £40,000 as a contribution towards the WPBSA’s legal costs. 

The case against Mr Lee was that he had passed on inside information to various associates - including a sponsor, his manager and a friend - about matches he was to play in by which both he and them could make a financial return through the betting markets. Some of the matches subject to the allegations were traditional match-fixing and some micro-manipulation of matches through spot-fixing - in this case purposefully losing the first frame of a match that he knew he should, and indeed did, win. The evidence that the WPBSA relied on was substantial witness statement and documentary evidence as to betting patterns and the timelines, but not content, of telephone communications at the relevant times. Mr Lee was given the opportunity to produce significant documentary evidence available, which would have helped his defence, but chose not to do so. Upon reading the decision of Mr Lewis in full, it certainly appears that the evidence was overwhelming against Mr Lee. Despite this, Mr Lee decided to appeal on a number of grounds, one of which, allegations of bias against Mr Lewis, was dealt with by a separate independent appeals tribunal, also under the Sport Resolutions banner.

A ruling on the issue of bias was made by Edwin Glasgow QC (appointed by Sport Resolutions) and Peter Stockwell (co-opted after representations from, and with the consent of, Mr Lee and WPBSA) on 24 February 2014. Mr Lee’s allegation of bias had twelve elements to it, the most significant of which was that Mr Lewis had previously represented Leyton Orient Football Club, in their judicial review action brought in relation to the Olympic Stadium in September 2013, and the chairman of Leyton Orient is Mr Barry Hearn - who is also the chairman of WPBSA.  Having formally questioned Mr Lewis, and the case handlers at Sport Resolutions, it was clear to the panel that no fair minded and informed observers would have considered there was a real possibility that Mr Lewis was biased either for any regulatory reasons set out in the WPBSA disciplinary rules or the principles on bias in the common law. 

Furthermore, Mr Lee had already objected to a previous appointment of an arbitrator for the hearing, had full access to Mr Lewis’ CV and, indeed, had done some investigation into his case history, and therefore even if there had been any bias this had been waived by both Mr Lee and his solicitor at the time. In a further blow to Mr Lee, on 12 March 2014 the panel also decided that, just in relation to this one ground of appeal, Mr Lee should pay an extra contribution of £30,000 towards the legal costs of the WPBSA. 

The most recent decision of 15 May 2014 by Mr Nicholas Stewart QC concerned all the other appeal grounds, largely substantive, put forward by Mr Lee. As with most other appellate tribunal that only have supervisory powers of review, Mr Stewart made it clear from the outset that unless he could see that Mr Lewis had been clearly wrong, he must accept Mr Lewis’ view of the credibility of witnesses and his judgments on the weight of the evidence before him in the original hearing. Although Mr Stewart did sympathise to some extent with Mr Lee’s first submission on the lack of disclosure of material held by the police and The Gambling Commission, which is often an issue where there are concurrent regulatory and criminal investigations, he did say that this had brought no unfairness to Mr Lee. He flatly rejected the remaining grounds of appeal, which mainly centred around an alleged incorrect weighting by Mr Lewis of the evidence before him, however he did stress, in particular, that in tribunal proceedings the manner of those and how they are conducted is clearly a matter for the regulatory body, in this case the WPBSA, and the fact that no transcript or recording of the hearing had been made was not a ground to have a rehearing of the case. Surprisingly, Mr Lee did not develop any of the points he set out by showing Mr Stewart where and how Mr Lewis had gone wrong. 

Interestingly both parties appealed the sanction with Mr Lee, of course, wanting to have it reduced and the WPBSA wanting it to be extended to a life ban, as had been applied by the England and Wales Cricket Board in its recent case against Pakistan cricketer, Danish Kaneria (Kaneria -v- The England & Wales Cricket Board Ltd [2014] EWHC 1348). However, Mr Stewart ruled that it was a proper exercise of Mr Lewis’ discretion not to impose a life ban and a suspension of 12 years was not unduly harsh in the circumstances.

Finally, on the crucial issue (for Mr Lee) of costs, Mr Stewart said that Mr Lewis had provided no basis as to why £40,000 was awarded in that it was less than half of what the WPBSA had actually submitted in their statement of costs and therefore the increased award of costs from the original hearing from £40,000 to £75,000.

One of the reasons stated in the original hearing as to why Mr Lee may have been driven to be involved in betting fraud is that he was in considerable financial hardship, indeed he had applied to the WPBSA’s benevolent association. Rather than greed, this is often a reason why professional sportsmen become involved in corrupt activities.  However, Mr Lee is now facing, up to this point, a total costs bill of £105,000 - with a ruling on the costs of the final appeal still to be heard. After the second hearing on bias he argued unsuccessfully before the panel that the means of the party against whom a cost order is made should be relevant to the level of the award. However, his ability to pay may cause a practical difficulty for the WPBSA.

The catastrophic nature of this ruling for Mr Lee - in that he is now suspended from any snooker activity until 12 October 2024, which, in effect, ends his snooker career - is a strong motivating factor for his forceful and continued fight against these now proven allegations.  However, the costs sanctions that have been applied to him makes one believe that he would have been better accepting his punishment earlier in proceedings. Not only that, but the three different arbitrators all said to some degree that Mr Lee was not a reliable witness, which will not count very favourably for his prospects of having a meaningful career in a different industry.

Overall this case is a solitary warning to those in sport – and also any professional whose conduct is overseen by professional regulator in any industry – of the importance of having realistic expectations of the outcome and being fully aware of costs consequences. These should be at the forefront of any discussions between a client and their legal counsel.