On 2 April 2019, following a meeting with the clubs Safety Advisory Group (SAG), Bolton Wanderers Football Club were issued with a prohibition notice under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975 (the Act). The SAG, which is made up of representatives from the local authority and the emergency services, ultimately determined that because the club could not commit to adhering to the conditions of the safety certificate issued for the University of Bolton Stadium, it had no other option than to issue the certificate holder for the stadium with a prohibition notice.
Section 1 of the Act dictates that an individual managing a sports ground with a capacity of more than 10,000 spectators requires a safety certificate from the local authority in order to hold sport events at that venue. This figure was reduced to 5,000 spectators under Article 2 of the Safety of Sports Grounds (Accommodation of Spectators) Order 1996/499 for all premier league and football league matches. A sports ground is defined under Section 17 as:
“any place where sports or other competitive activities take place in the open air and where accommodation has been provided for spectators, consisting of artificial structures or of natural structures artificially modified for the purpose”
A safety certificate shall contain such terms and conditions as the local authority consider necessary or expedient to secure reasonable safety at the sports ground. The holder of a certificate is required to undertake appropriate risk assessments, produce an operational manual and to comply with the policies, plans and procedures as set out in the operations manual.
Failure to adhere to the terms and conditions of the safety certificate or the agreed operations manual may lead to the local authority taking action against the holder of the safety certificate. There are a number of different enforcement mechanisms available to a local authority for breach, which includes; the reduction of capacity for the sports ground, a prohibition notice, a formal caution and potential prosecution under the Act.
Section 10 of the Act provides a local authority with the power to issue a prohibition notice on the holder of a general safety certificate for a sports ground where the holder of a safety certificate is unable to comply with one or more of the terms or conditions set by local authority and there is a risk to spectator safety. A prohibition notice can prohibit the admission of spectators to a sports ground or any part of a sports ground which involves or will involve a risk to them so serious that, until the steps have been taken to reduce that risk, spectators admission to the ground be prohibited or restricted.
A local authority should look to work with the holder of a general safety certificate in order to alleviate risks in the first instance, with the decision to issue a prohibition notice being a measure of last resort.
The nature of a prohibition notice is that it seeks to limit risks to spectators which are imminent. As such, a prohibition notice can take effect as soon as it is served or at the end of a period specified within the notice. The latter would allow the holder of the safety certificate to undertake any remedial action within this timeframe to evidence compliance with a safety certificate to satisfy the issuing authority that the prohibition notice is no longer required.
The local authority in this case issued a prohibition notice on to the certificate holder for the University of Bolton Stadium after they were unable to commit to adhering to the obligations of their safety certificate until after their High Court appearance on 3 April 2019 over unpaid debts. As such, to prevent risks to spectators, the prohibition notice was issued immediately, given that there was insufficient time for operational arrangements to be put in place for the games against Ipswich Town (6 April 2019) and Middlesbrough (9 April 2019) to minimise the risks to spectator safety.
Withdrawal of a prohibition notice
A prohibition notice may be withdrawn by a local authority at any time, as specified under the Act. A local authority would need to be provided with sufficient evidence to suggest that the risks previously identified had been addressed by the holder of a general safety certificate.
In this particular matter, if Bolton Wanderers demonstrate that they have taken the necessary steps to alleviate the risks to the spectators, a local authority may determine that a prohibition notice is no longer required. In the current case, the two upcoming fixtures against Ipswich Town and Middlesbrough are still likely to be played behind closed doors based on the time constraints for making operational arrangements for those fixtures. However, it is feasible for those games to go ahead, with spectators present, should the prohibition notice be withdrawn by the local authority.
Appeals against a prohibition notice
The Act dictates that an aggrieved person who has been issued with a prohibition notice may appeal to the magistrates’ court against the issuing of such a notice. The appeal must be lodged within 21 days of the service of the notice. The bringing of an appeal does not suspend the notice and any restrictions imposed under a prohibition notice remain in force unless it is withdrawn by the local authority or amended or annulled by the court.
In practical terms, this would not be of benefit to Bolton Wanderers. Even if successful, an appeal is unlikely to be considered in time so as to allow for operational arrangements to be made for the upcoming fixtures. This is likely to be the same issue preventing the aforementioned matches from being played at an alternative local sports ground.
If it appears to a local authority that an offence has been committed, the local authority should consider their response having regard to the facts of the alleged offence/s and the merits of the case. In minor cases, a local authority will consider the response of a certificate holder and whether the steps taken limit the risk of repetition. In these circumstances, the local authority may determine that no further action is required but warn the certificate holder regarding their future conduct.
A local authority may wish to administer a formal caution in more serious cases where spectators have been put at risk but the offence is an isolated incident. However, should a certificate holder disregard their obligations and persistently breach the terms of a safety certificate, the local authority may consider bringing a prosecution against a certificate holder. This tends to cover offences, whereby spectators have in fact been admitted to a sports ground in contravention of a safety certificate and subject to risk of harm. However, in this case, an offence would be committed if spectators were admitted into a sports ground, in effect defying the prohibition notice. Any person convicted of an offence under the act shall be liable to a fine or, in the most serious cases, to imprisonment for not more than two years.
This particular enforcement action is unlikely given the club’s acknowledgement that it was unable to meet the conditions of the safety certificate. The fact that a prohibition notice was issued means that no spectators are allowed into the ground and, provided no spectators are admitted into the ground by the certificate holder, there will be no risk to spectator safety or risk of prosecution.
In summary, it is likely that the games against Ipswich Town and Middlesbrough will be played behind closed doors provided that this is authorised by the football league. However, moving forward one would envisage that when the club’s financial situation is resolved the club will again be in a position to financially meet its obligations and comply with the specific terms of the certificate issued for the stadium, allowing fans to watch the season come to a close.
If you are currently faced with a health and safety investigation or you are worried about compliance with health and safety legislation, contact Stephensons and ask to speak to a specialist health and safety solicitor for further information of how to approach the situation. Please call 0175 321 6399 to speak to one of our solicitors or alternatively complete and submit our online enquiry form and someone will contact you as soon as possible in regards to your queries.