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On 29 September 2014 the RFU Appeal Panel, chaired by Sir James Dingemans, handed down judgment in RFU v Barry Lockwood.

An RFU Disciplinary Panel had imposed a suspension of 10 years from playing rugby on a 49 year old player. The RFU, bringing the appeal, persuaded the Appeal Panel that 10 years was so unduly lenient as to be unreasonable, and the Appeal Panel duly increased the suspension to 20 years.

On 7 December 2013 Ruislip RFC 2nd Team (Mr Lockwood’s team) had been playing the Honourable Artillery Company RFC 2nd team in a Herts/Middlesex Merit table game. The referee had showed Mr Lockwood a yellow card for holding on, after which Mr Lockwood punched and felled the referee. The referee suffered concussion, facial injuries, and dental damage which required £750 of treatment.

Mr Lockwood was subsequently prosecuted for assault occasioning actual bodily harm and pleaded guilty. He was ordered to perform 80 hours of community service, pay compensation of £2,500, a victim surcharge of £60, and costs of £85.

The Disciplinary Panel had noted that the usual starting point for this kind of offence should be a life ban, but reduced that starting point to 20 years on the basis of evidence that Mr Lockwood had been acting out of character due to a concussion. 20 years was then reduced to 10 by taking into account the mitigating factors set out in RFU Regulation 19.11.11.

The Appeal Panel accepted the RFU’s submission that there was insufficient evidence to allow the potential concussion to constitute a mitigating factor. There had been no medical evidence at all before the Disciplinary Panel, and “mitigation, particularly where it is likely to be critical, should be shown in the same way as any other relevant fact.” The Appeal Panel accepted that a life ban was appropriate as the usual starting point, but as Mr Lockwood had been put through the strain of both hearings, and “given his age”, took a starting point of 30 years instead.

The RFU submitted that because Mr Lockwood had no option but to accept his conduct (given the overwhelming evidence) he should not have had much credit for his guilty plea. That submission was rejected by the Appeal Panel, and a 33 per cent reduction for mitigating factors was given (down from the 50% given by the Disciplinary Panel, in order properly to take into account Mr Lockwood’s chequered disciplinary history).

Internationally, there is a precedent for lifetime bans in rugby for disciplinary offences. During the course of 2014, for example: Hennie van den Heever, a coach of the Vaal Reefs Rugby Club’s second team, was suspended for life after assaulting a referee; and Savelio Sagato, a winger for a Wellingon club side, was banned for life after punching a referee following his sending off. (A 28-year old Switzerland-based amateur footballer, Ricardo Ferreira, was also recently banned for 50 years for attacking a referee after the final whistle (he had already served a 45-game ban for assaulting opposition players)).

Even taking into account the lower starting point, and the mitigating factors, the Appeal Panel’s sanction clearly amounts, in effect, to a lifetime ban: Mr Lockwood will not be able to rejoin a maul until he is touching 70 years old. As already mentioned, the Appeal Panel initially thought that their starting point for the sentence (before taking into account mitigating factors) should be a lifetime ban. However, they decided to reduce that starting point to a mere 30 year ban because of Mr Lockwood’s age. But that concession to Mr Lockwood is rather tokenistic when, precisely because of Mr Lockwood’s age, the reduction from life to 30 years will have absolutely no impact on the effect of the sentence.

Indeed, although mitigating factors then reduced the ban further to 20 years, it is hard to imagine that the overall appeal result, i.e. the increase of the ban from 10 years to 20, will have any actual effect on whether Mr Lockwood will ever play competitive rugby again. Even the Disciplinary Panel’s verdict would have banned Mr Lockwood from rugby until he was nearly 60. Clearly, the Appeal Panel wanted to send a message and set a precedent.

It will be interesting to see whether that precedent has an effect on future cases: not just in rugby but whether the universal “spirit of sport” may carry the effect into other sports as well. Attacks on referees have not always carried such severe consequences. Perhaps most famously, in 1998 the premiership footballer Paulo di Canio was banned for (only) 11 matches (and fined £10,000) for roughly shoving to the floor a referee who had shown him a red card. If the Appeal Panel’s message is heard, perhaps lifetime bans will become more common.

James Segan appeared for the RFU in the case.