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Grass roots football under threat?

Last week, I was asked to comment on a case by Sky Sports News. The case concerns a legal battle between Paul Zoledziejewski, an amateur football player who suffered injury after a football accident at Shelf Hall Park, and Calderdale Council, who own the pitch where the football match was played.

Mr Zoledziejewski suffered damage to his knee ligaments during the match when his right foot got stuck in a rut in the pitch. The 33-year-old was awarded £22,700 compensation by a judge at Dewsbury County Court after it was ruled that the accident was attributable to the pitch being poorly maintained. Calderdale Council have been granted the right of appeal against the decision.

The story has captured the attention of Sky Sports News, along with many of those involved in amateur football clubs across the country, due to the potential implications the judgement could have on the game at the grass roots level. On granting Calderdale right to appeal, Lord Justice Gross commented that the ramifications for amateur sport were ‘considerable’ and that “the upshot is there may be fewer pitches available for amateur sport.’

In the eyes of the law, council owned football pitches are no different than highways and pavements, the latter of course being subject to regular inspection and maintenance to ensure public safety. As a result, injuries sustained on public highways that can be proven to have been inadequately maintained, can result in the Council being sued for personal injury compensation, which is what has happened in Zoledziejewski case, albeit his injury occurred on a football pitch. It may be argued however that by participating in sports matches, the players are aware of the risks and should not therefore expect to receive compensation in the event of an injury.

One potential outcome if the decision is to be upheld, is that Councils across the country will be reluctant to allow matches to take place on their pitches for fear of exposing themselves to this liability. This may lead to pitches being sold off, or at least not as many pitches being utilised by local teams for football/other sports.

Football, along with many other sports, has been enjoyed as a hobby by many. Regular participation in a local sports club or team is often a great way for youngsters to develop important social and life skills, as well as staying fit and active. The thought that this could be threatened, either by the demise of local teams due to lack of playing facilities, or an increase in the cost to participate, driven by increased insurance premiums, is alarming.

The outcome of the appeal by Calderdale Council may set a precedent for future cases of this kind, and will be eagerly awaited by those who run and participate in local sports clubs.

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