Strict liability is the process where football clubs are accountable for their fans behaviour. The law currently regulates European and English football clubs; however, it’s recently become a topical and highly debated subject in Scottish football. This is a complete guide to what you should know about strict liability.

UEFA / Europe

Strict Liability in football was first introduced by the Union of European Football Associations’ Executive Committee in 2005 to tackle anti-social behaviour at football matches.

This term means that UEFA member associations and football clubs are held responsible for any anti-social behaviour of club’s fans, regardless of fault. Football clubs can avoid penalties if they can show that they have taken practical actions to deal with unacceptable behaviour from fans.

The rules that the UEFA have set under strict liability are known to be notoriously strict. They regulate:

  • The use of flares
  • The use of inappropriate flags
  • Pitch invaders
  • Throwing objects
  • Bringing in alcohol
  • Disrupting national or competition anthems
  • The use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event

Some sanctions include:

  • Fines
  • Closure of section of grounds
  • Playing matches behind closed doors
  • Deduction of league points,
  • Ban from selling tickets to supporters for away matches
  • Exclusion from tournaments

A well known example of a club being sanctioned is the Dutch club Feyenoord, who were excluded from the UEFA Cup in 2007 as a result of riots before and during their away match to AS Nancy, in France.


English Football

During the summer of 2014, The Football Association in England brought strict liability into force. The introduction of the rule aligns English clubs with the same rule for European opponents. The rule was brought into action as a result of pressure from campaigners and MPs and a trail of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic incidents by fans in English football club stadiums.

A Channel 4’s Dispatches programme aired undercover footage of West Ham supporters chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans before a game against Tottenham Hotspur. It also showed homophobic chanting by opposition fans during Brighton & Hove Albion games.

The FA’s strict liability rule is similar to the UEFA’s rule, however, it differs slightly. The handbook states:

“Any Affiliated Association, Competition or Club which fails effectively to discharge its said responsibility in any respect whatsoever shall be guilty of misconduct. It shall be a defence in respect of charges against a Club for misconduct by spectators and all persons purporting to be supporters or followers of the Club, if it can show that all events, incidents or occurrences complained of were the result of circumstances over which it had no control, or for reasons of crowd safety, and that its responsible officers or agents had used all due diligence to ensure that its said responsibility was discharged.”

The FA’s system also does not use strict liability for crowd disturbances such as pitch invasions, throwing of missiles etc.

Scottish Football

Strict liability in Scottish football has been a topical and ongoing debate in recent years.

In 2013, clubs in the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) rejected the proposed plan to introduce the strict liability rule.

Clubs in Scotland are subject to strict liability when competing in European competitions, however, not domestically. Scottish clubs including Celtic and Rangers have been hit with hefty fines from the UEFA in the past. In 2006, Rangers was fined £21,000 after fans sang sectarian songs in a match against Villareal from Spain. In 2007, Celtic was fined £25,000 after a supporter invaded the pitch at Celtic Park during a game against AC Milan.

Scottish football is regulated by the Scottish Football Association (SFA), and their handbook outlines different rules and responsibilities in relation to the behaviour of club fans. Article 28 of the SFA’s handbook notes that clubs can be held liable for the behaviour of their fans, however, liability is not strict. This means that a club can show that it took practical action to tackle anti-social behaviour, but no form of disciplinary steps or sanctions will be reviewed.

In a recent interview with the BBC, St Mirren chief executive Tony Fitzpatrick asked: “How can you punish a club?” and argued: “It’s a problem for wider society. We need to look at how young people are being brought up

In 2016, MSP James Dornan reopened a proposal for a Bill to make Scottish professional football clubs strictly liable for their supporters’ behaviour. This was following the 2016 Scottish Cup final between Hibernian FC and Rangers FC, where supporters invaded the pitch and various football players and staff were assaulted.

The Bill for strict liability to rule Scottish professional football clubs is hoped to put an end to behaviour that is largely manifested through sectarianism.

Campaign groups also continue to push for the bill to be passed. Nil by Mouth are one group who campaign to end sectarianism and believe that introducing strict liability to Scottish Football could help.