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Friday, 5 September 2014

The umpire's lot is not a happy one

Two recent press stories show that the lot of a cricket umpire is not always a happy one off the field, any more than it can be on it. Two respected umpires of many years standing have been told they are too old to continue, while another faces the unusual charge that he is too Church of England. Both propositions will have satirists reaching for their keyboards, but in both cases there is a serious legal issue that has much wider implications than the foibles of flanned fools in whites.

The elders

According to the Times (28 August 2014), the umpires Peter Willey (an iron-willed batsman for England a few years ago) and George Sharp are about to bring a complaint against the England and Wales Cricket Board in the employment tribunal, alleging age discrimination. Both Willey and Sharp are about to reach 65 years of age, and under present ECB rules both face compulsory retirement accordingly. They may have the law on their side: since 2011, mandatory retirement at 65 is no longer automatically legally defensible. Instead, employers are required to show an "objective justification".

The role of an umpire requires an extensive knowledge of cricket, together with the ability to deal with at least mildly stressful situations. If anything, both qualities are likely to be enhanced by age. On the other hand, umpiring also requires stamina, concentration, sharp eyesight and acute hearing, and it is not being ageist to observe that all of those abilities erode with time (and that erosion comes to us all). Cricketing history has more than a few tales of once-respected umpires stubbornly carrying on well beyond the point where their senses had dulled too far, yet apparently remaining unsackable because of their earlier reputation or because of ineffective officialdom.

Then again, all individuals age at different rates, and different jobs require different skills, some of which will decline quicker than others. Both those considerations suggest a fixed figure is inappropriate for determining retiring ages across all spheres of employment.

The only problem with a more flexible approach is that it leaves room for argument (and ultimately litigation) in individual cases, with the resultant expense and uncertainty. Yet even if one decides, for reasons of certainty, that a fixed age for retirement (and collection of superannuation) is appropriate, the long-standing figure of 65 might need to be revised in light of substantially improved living standards. The average life expectancy has increased markedly in the past few decades, and a person of 75 today might well be just as fit and capable as the average person of 65 fifty years ago. (Whether one agrees or not, the parlous state of our public finances might soon require the raising of the pensionable age out of economic necessity.) It follows that Willey and Sharp have an arguable case at least.

The churchman

The Daily Telegraph (7 September 2014) reported that

A councillor and cricket enthusiast has been told he cannot umpire a church match because of fears he may not be ‘theologically neutral’ as his great-great grandfather was a bishop.

Michael Claughton, who has 18 years’ experience as a cricket umpire, offered to officiate the match between the Church of England XI and Vatican XI, due to take place later this month.

But he said he was left baffled after officials said he could not be considered for the charity because they wanted to ensure it was theologically “neutral” and they feared his ancestry could make him biased against the Catholic team.”

Assuming the report to be accurate, the officials’ reasoning seems slightly odd – if one could trace Claughton’s ancestry further back than Henry VIII, it would be a racing certainty that he would have Catholic forebearers too. Moreover, both XI’s seem to share the same head office theologically, even if the branch management differs.

More seriously, natural justice requires that a judge recuse him or herself if there is any suggestion that he or she shares any form of relationship or common interest with the litigants. There have been some interesting disputes over the years as to whether a common religion between judge and litigant amounts to such a relationship, the answer probably being that it will do so only where the dispute actually involves the religion in some material respect, with the usual qualification about each case turning on its facts.

Secondly, what about social events such as Claughton’s cricket match?  Should the law bother getting involved?  One might instinctively suggest no, but there have been occasions in which human rights fingers have been pointed accusingly towards a social event: a long-standing married couples’ golf tournament was an early victim of human rights legislation in New Zealand, for example. Then there were the private clubs which clung to their men-only membership policies until very late in the twentieth century (the Marylebone Cricket Club prominent among them).

Such questions would be more pertinent in Claughton’s case if umpiring was his professional career and the game a remunerative fixture. As it stands, I assume that he will not be much obstructed by the slight. But the moral principle remains.

One of the match’s organisers said “There's absolutely no question of Michael Claughton's skill as an umpire or his honesty. We just thought it would be a nice way of showing everybody this is neutral.” Well, I imagine it wasn’t very nice for Claughton. 

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