An evaluation of Section 1 of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 - Research Findings

An Evaluation of the implementation and impact of section 1 of the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012

Implementation of the legislation and key factors facilitating or impeding its effectiveness

The Act was adopted quickly. This was partly because of the police and prosecution initiatives that had been set up before the enactment of section 1 of the Act, namely: the establishment of the Football Coordination Unit Scotland (FoCUS) and the establishment of Football Liaison Prosecutors.

FoCUS was well-regarded by the police who were interviewed in the evaluation, for helping local police divisions work through the operational and tactical implications of the legislation and for providing training and other forms of support.

Police interviewees also highly appreciated the work of Football Liaison Prosecutors who were located in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS). They were seen as being a readily approachable point of contact within their regions, and were viewed as actively helping prepare and progress s. 1 cases.

Levels of awareness of the act were high among all supporters (83% had heard of it in the 2014 survey), but were highest among Celtic and Rangers supporters (94% and 92% respectively).

Sheriffs were divided on the Act, ranging from strongly in support to emphatically critical. Most often though they expressed a mixture of support and criticism for s. 1. Some were concerned about its clarity and the human rights implications. Some also felt that the quality of evidence in cases brought under section 1 was sometimes weaker than it could be, with one emphasising that he would appreciate expert witness evidence on the meaning of behaviours labelled as offensive.

Policing and stewarding was still considered to be very inconsistent at different grounds, with inexperienced police officers and stewards perceived either to be failing to act on offensive behaviours, or enforcing the legislation in a manner that was viewed as adversarial by fans.

Fans and police officers, who were involved in the evaluation, placed value on experience, and on known police officers and stewards who could build up a rapport with fans. Such individuals were considered more likely to be able to 'head off' offensive behaviour through proactive intervention and influence.

Tensions around the introduction of the Act however - and in particular the extent to which certain sections of fans felt over-policed, and subject to disproportionate levels of surveillance, searches and public-order style policing - was considered to have placed a strain on police, club and fan relationships at certain clubs. This was commonly remarked upon by both fans and police officers. For some experienced police officers a consequence of this strain was that it made it harder to exert a positive influence on fans, and in particular to get information from fan groups about more serious criminal behaviour, notably violence associated with risk groups.

A concern of some police officers was that the focus of police resource on instadia disorder and offensive behaviour, was at the expense of resources being available to appropriately monitor more violent risk groups. It was indeed notable within this research how groups of fans in stadia who were associated with enthusiastic singing and displays (and potentially offensive behaviour), were now commonly referred to as 'risk groups'. This conflation of groups of fans associated with potentially offensive behaviour with those engaged in much more serious, violent offences, is problematic particularly if it implies that specialist police resources (such as surveillance and intelligence assets) should be diluted or diverted, or if it exposes fans who hitherto were not regarded as a 'problem' to less restrained policing strategies.

Whilst younger fans (in particular those under 20) constitute a higher proportion of people charged under s. 1 over time (constituting 46% of charges in 2013/14 compared to 36% in 2012/13), this is only a proportionate increase, and would appear to reflect a steep fall in the number of older fans being charged. Charges against older fans (aged 31 and above) fell from 71 in 2012-13 (26% of all charges) to 24 charges in 2013-14 (12% of all charges). This may be due to older fans complying with the legislation more quickly, though some fan-respondents' argued that it was because younger fans were an 'easy target' for enforcement.

The 'success' of the Act in terms of successful prosecutions, has faltered in the last year, with the published rate for s. 1 prosecutions dropping from 73% to 52%. Our analysis would suggest that this drop in convictions may not only be an issue for s. 1 offences, but also for other football-related charges such as breach of the peace.

There appear to be quite long delays in getting football-related charges through the criminal justice system. Again, this does not pertain exclusively to s. 1 charges. In our qualitative research the length of time taken to progress cases was perceived as a source of frustration and unfairness by some fans.


Email: Ben Cavanagh

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