Can tragedy-related abuse in football be prosecuted?

It has long been a problem that some football fans find pleasure in using facts relating to tragic events concerning certain footballers, football clubs or their fans (e.g. the Hillsborough disaster concerning Liverpool FC fans; the Munich air disaster concerning Manchester United FC players and staff). After much debate and discussion within the industry, the CPS has considered that now is the time to crackdown on fans’ conduct.

Additional prosecuting guidance was published on 7 September 2023 by the Crown Prosecution Service (“CPS”).

Where someone uses relevant insulting words, abuse and/or behaviour, it may amount to an offence under section 4A or section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

The guidance states that prosecutors should bear in mind the following, when assessing each case on its own merits:-

  • That such conduct can take place in verbal form (e.g. songs / chants), in writing (e.g. on banners) or by way of gestures;
  • That any references to be relied upon should be widely understood with the meaning not in dispute;
  • Evidence (in support of a section 4A offence) does not need to come from the accused, it can come from a person who witnessed the conduct (e.g. an officer);
  • Evidence (in support of a section 5 offence) could be proof only that a person was likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.

What if the abuse is online?

Online abuse may be considered an offence under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 (sending something in writing with intent to cause distress or anxiety) or section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 (improper use of public electronic communications network e.g. social media).

Football banning orders

Any such abuse outlined above could be taken into account when considering a football banning order under section 14B of the Football Spectators Act 1989.

Our Sports Law team can be contacted on 020 7632 4300 or at [email protected].


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