SPL Tribunal - Good News and More Questions

Next week will see the resumption of the SPL tribunal into so called “double contracts” at Rangers. I say double contracts but I believe the terminology now used is “side letters”, or indeed whatever terminology gives the greatest likelihood of a negative result for Rangers. Whatever the terminology, the tribunal has already been hugely undermined by the result of the First Tier Tribunal (FTT) which found that Rangers had conducted their EBT scheme correctly with only a handful of administrative errors. Those errors have been clung to by those wishing to continue the SPL’s vendetta against the club but there have been a number of pieces of good news which have come to the attention of the Rangers Standard ahead of the tribunal, and a number of unanswered questions for those at the SPL intent on continuing this witch hunt.

The first piece of good news is that Rangers will now be represented at the tribunal. Charles Green has quite rightly taken the view that this tribunal has no authority or relevance to the new company running the club and under the terms of insolvency obligations it was always unlikely that the old company would defend the charges. This is because the liquidators cannot be seen to spend money on legal action which brings no benefit to the creditors.

However, the Rangers Fans Fighting Fund (RFFF) have now stepped into the grey area in which the SPL have been trying to operate and have agreed that they will underwrite the legal costs of a solicitor and a QC to attend the tribunal and fight the charges. It had been thought that the RFFF statement made last week involved costs for a subsequent legal challenge but the funds are being used to fight these charges at every step. This is a big leap forward because the SPL lawyers, Harper MacLeod, have been relying on the fact that nobody would be present to challenge their ridiculous assertion that Rangers have been “cheating”.

The next piece of good news comes from the FTT decision. It was widely reported at the time that Rangers were found to have conducted the vast majority of their EBTs correctly. This included the tribunal members confirming that the EBT payments did in fact constitute loans, were not emoluments and therefore did not need to be declared to the SPL as they were not contractual. The tribunal was very specific on this point and it was a huge blow to the SPL’s case. However, it is also now possible to clarify the remaining point that those who have been seeking to damage the club have been clinging to.

Those who have spent months, and in some cases years, attempting to blacken the name of the club, latched on to the fact that five players were found to have had their EBTs wrongly administered and held this up as ‘evidence’ that the club were guilty of breaching SPL rules and that they would therefore have titles stripped for the years in which those players were employed.

In fact, entirely the opposite is the case. Once again, in their rush to attack Rangers, they have got their information completely wrong. The cases of the five players involve circumstances where they were incorrectly paid for contractual obligations through an EBT. The payments were detailed in their contract but, instead of being paid using standard methods, were paid using an EBT. This has caused them to be singled out by the FTT as administrative errors but has completely the opposite effect for this SPL tribunal as the payments in question were detailed in the players’ contracts and lodged with the SPL. So the smoking gun that the internet hordes have been clinging to for the past few months actually works in Rangers favour.

The EBTs themselves have been shown by the FTT to be above board, correctly administered and loans, not emoluments, for the purpose of the SPL tribunal. The only EBT payments to fall foul of the FTT were in fact detailed in contracts and lodged with the SPL, so they have no reasonable recourse against either the EBTs or these contractual payments. The SPL case is dead in the water.

However, there are still issues for the club to face because, as with the SFA tribunal which imposed an unlawful sanction on the club, this SPL tribunal is essentially a law unto itself. Nobody is casting doubt on the integrity of Lord Nimmo Smith or the two QCs who have been chosen to sit on the tribunal. I am sure they will do their job with the utmost adherence to fairness and the law. The one thing which cannot be legislated for however is the SPL’s rulebook and their lawyer’s interpretation of it.

As with the SFA tribunal, these learned, legal figures are being asked to make judgement based on a set of rules which were never designed to deal with situations such as this. In fact the SPL rules on player registration were designed to protect the players and ensure they were always paid their contractual entitlement. They are now being bent to a different purpose by those in the SPL who wish to see Rangers punished.

The legal minds on the tribunal have to take guidance from the SPL (and Celtic) lawyers Harper MacLeod on the interpretation of the rules and, just like the SFA tribunal, are somewhat at the mercy of those who wish to twist and bend the wording of the rules for their own means. It would appear that, in order to be successful, the SPL lawyers will have to convince the tribunal that any benefit given to a player has to be lodged with them - not just those which are contractual.

If they are successful then this should lead to a review of every club in Scotland who give their players a company car, put them up in a hotel the night before the game or even give them a free pie or a drink in the bar after the game. That is before we even get started on image rights. This may sound ridiculous but this is now what the SPL case is based on. This is the level they will be stooping to during this tribunal and we all know that this interpretation of their rules, if successful, will only be applied to Rangers. We have already seen this in action with Ian Blair’s convenient dismissal of questions regarding the payments to Juninho by Celtic. No tribunal; no “low level paper gathering” by Harper MacLeod partner Rod McKenzie, minimal press coverage, case dismissed.

However, it may be that the SPL themselves have some tricky questions to answer when they meet for their monthly board update the day before the tribunal starts. There are several chairmen starting to question just exactly how much this witch hunt being carried out on behalf of Celtic is costing the SPL. They are also wondering whether they are being kept up to date on the costs.

The bill to date for Harper MacLeod’s “low level paper gathering” is estimated to be around £150-200k. This works out at around £15-20k for each of the 10 lever arch files of ‘evidence’ delivered to the SPL tribunal – not bad work if you can get it. The tribunal costs themselves, including the fees for the members of the tribunal, lawyers’ attendance and further preparatory work are likely to double this figure. Can the SPL, currently in huge financial difficulty, really afford to spend up to £400k in order to attempt to steal some titles for Celtic that they were unable to win on the pitch?

Even if they can afford it, have the SPL board been keeping their members informed of the price of this action? Every month the board members are given a pack of information for their meetings which includes a breakdown of the costs for that month. Included in these are the figures for fees to Harper MacLeod. They obviously carry out a lot more work for the SPL than just this tribunal action but has the work related to the tribunal been included? Are only select members of the SPL board aware of the true cost of this witch hunt? I am sure Celtic would see £400k as a small price to pay to buy a few titles they couldn’t win on the pitch, but we have to assume they are not bearing the cost of this themselves.

It would be a worthwhile exercise for the press and broadcast journalists who read this to go to those chairmen who are not part of the inner sanctum at the SPL and see if they can confirm any knowledge of just how much this is costing them. After all, there is no prospect of the SPL being able to impose a fine against the old company which ran Rangers in order to recoup costs. That comes from no less an authority than Lord Nimmo Smith himself, who made it clear the SPL tribunal was not a legal process for the purposes of the Insolvency Act, and that court action would likely be required if the SPL wished to levy a fine on the company currently going through liquidation.

The bottom line is that Rangers are now well represented thanks to the money the fans poured into the RFFF and have a very strong case. Unless the SPL are allowed to engage in the same underhand action that the SFA took when they imposed an unlawful transfer ban on Rangers, then the club should emerge from this tribunal with titles intact and completely vindicated. I have faith in the members of the tribunal to act with integrity but I cannot say the same about the process which brought this about and that is where my concern lies.

We will see what the outcome is soon enough but it will be a bleak day for Scottish football if the small cabal running the SPL get their way. In fact it would effectively end any chance for reconciliation in the Scottish game – reconciliation which is looking difficult enough to achieve as it is.

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