Why would anyone involved in amateur and professional sports organizations look favourably on courts intervening in their affairs? Such intervention can reasonably be seen not only as meddlesome but, particularly in the case of amateur sports organizations, as a ticket for a bullet train to impoverishment and the allocation of resources away from their prime mission—playing and promoting their sport. Often sports-related lawsuits are relatively simple factually, need a quick decision and involve parties without the financial resources to engage in a long contest. Not surprisingly then, the criticisms of the civil court process, that it is slow, ungainly, expensive and so forth, seem to be magnified when a sports-related matter becomes embroiled in the legal system.
Fortunately, though, for sports organizations’ budgets, the courts have usually stood back from sports-related matters. Which is probably all to the good for, as one of England’s best-known civil jurists, Lord Denning, stated many years ago: "Justice can often be done in domestic tribunals better by a good layman than by a bad lawyer." However, the courts are loath to entirely give up their supervisory jurisdiction, which they will use when a case comes before them that cries out for intervention. Their authority to decide these kinds of issues comes in part from the common law and, in British Columbia, from Section 85 of the Society Act, assuming the organization is incorporated thereunder.
An example of when a court feels compelled to intervene is provided by a recent Ontario case, Rudder (Litigation guardian of) v. Ontario Amateur Softball Association. At the heart of this case was an eleven year- old boy’s desire to play in an upcoming baseball tournament. By his litigation guardian, he brought an application for injunctive relief to allow him to move from one team to another and to participate in the tournament. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice granted the injunction, stating that there was "a serious issue that the rules of natural justice have been breached". In this regard, the Court found that the respondent’s decision-making body had:
- relied on evidence that it did not share with the boy’s litigation guardian;
- failed to give reasons for its decision preventing the boy’s transfer;
- apparently not considered the "serious issues" raised by the boy’s litigation guardian.
The respondent was ordered to allow the boy to move teams and to play in the tournament.
Set against this is a 2004 Supreme Court of British Columbia decision in Turnbull-Spence et. al. v. Kamloops Blades Association. In this case, two members of a skating club who had been expelled brought a lawsuit to compel their reinstatement. They lost. Although the Court found that there were errors made by the decision-making body that led to a finding of a breach of procedural fairness, it declined to issue an order compelling reinstatement. In doing so, the Court took into account the reality of the skating club—that it was a "small, local, volunteer organization without paid staff . . . the effect of reinstatement would likely be to cause the collapse of the club or to precipitate another resolution to expel the plaintiffs".
Not that such small sports clubs should now consider themselves immune from attack. Mr. Justice Preston in Turnbull-Spence also noted that "I am not satisfied that damages could not be recovered at common law in a proper case if the rights of a member were shown to have been breached and damages suffered".
These two cases, and the context of non-intervention by the courts in which they exist, contain lessons both for sports organizations and the individuals who are their members. For the sports associations, care should be taken to construct proper procedures for handling disputes. They can, for example, develop arbitration clauses to bind members, under most circumstances, to alternative dispute resolution processes instead of resorting to the courts. A useful resource in this regard is the Sports Dispute Resolution Centre for Canada (SDRCC), a body established by federal legislation that is designed to serve as an alternative to the courts for sports-related disputes.
If, after all else fails, an unhappy member still resorts to litigation, a sports association can be confident that, if it has largely complied with both its own rules and the general principles of natural justice in making a decision, a court will not intervene. Put another way, if you are involved in any way with sports administration and you ‘do a good job,’ you should not be worried about a court interfering with your decisions.