No winners as golfer loses libel action over handicap

Mr Thomas Talbot. Picture via Irish IndependentThe golfer who sued the Golfing Union of Ireland and the handicap secretary of his former club has lost his libel action in the High Court. He must pay the costs of a prohibitively expensive (€500,000?), 21-day case and though he plans to appeal, it appears that no-one - bar the legal profession - has come out a winner in this one.

As Tim Healy reports in the Irish Independent:

Thomas Talbot (75) sued his former club, the Hermitage in Lucan, Dublin, claiming he was defamed in a certificate sent to him by the handicap sub-committee in July 2003 stating his handicap was 13, with the words “General Play (Handicap Building)” at the bottom.

Mr Talbot felt he was effectively being accused of cheating and that there was a vendetta against him. He sued for €10m

The judge agreed that the words “handicap building” used in a handicap certificate sent to him by the handicap sub-committe were defamatory but not libellous as they were not published to third party:

“the certificate of his handicap was only addressed to Mr Talbot and contained in a sealed envelope left for him in the men’s competition room.”

So what now?

The judge awarded costs of the case, which lasted 21 days and are expected to run into hundreds of thousands, against Mr Talbot, who said afterwards he intended appealing the costs order.

The Golfing Union of Ireland’s general secretary, Pat Finn, was quick to issue a press release, “welcoming the judgment”. But…

While the GUI is happy that the High Court has vindicated its position in finding against Mr Talbot, it is a matter of great regret to the GUI, a voluntary organisation, that it became embroiled in High Court proceedings, which it maintained at all times were entirely unmeritorious and which it had no option but to defend in the circumstances.

That the case ever got to the High Court is a sad reflection on the game, good old fashioned Irish litigiousness and the vulnerability of sports clubs and organisations in such cases.

It was interesting to read a blog from Dublin-based Leman Solicitors pointing out of that an Alternative Dispute Regulation (ADR) clause should be included in the constitution of all sports clubs and organisations, precisely to try and avoid cases of this nature.

Back in March, Leman wrote:

Estimated legal costs for the Hermitage are €200,000.00 and the GUI faces a legal bill of close to €300,000.00.  That’s close on €500,000.00 in legal costs to defend the action taken by Talbot, who appears for himself as a ‘lay litigant’.
Win, lose or draw the Hermitage golf club and the GUI will suffer a hemorrhaging balance sheet and are likely to do so for years to come.  The reason for this is simple: - even if the club and GUI win the case and get an Order compelling Talbot to pay their costs, they may be reluctant to enforce that judgment against a pensioner for fear of adverse publicity or Talbot may not have the means to satisfy that colossal sum of money.

The solution is simple, apparently.

 For years members of sports governing bodies and clubs have signed up to alternative means than the High Court  of resolving sports disputes by way of internal complaints and disciplinary proceedings, mediation or arbitration.
Every club of whatever sporting code should take responsibility and work in an ADR clause into its constitution or Memorandum and Articles of Association.  That is to say that if a dispute arises between members of a club or between a member and their club, then there should be an internal infrastructure to resolve such a dispute ’within the family’.

I’ve yet to check with the GUI but it will be interesting to hear their views on what could turn out to be a very expensive, and avoidable, exercise.