Court Orders British Swimming To Pay Out So Masters Settlement Is Honoured

2023-01-23 Reading Time: 5 minutes

A county court has ordered British Swimming to pay out £6,000 for Masters swimming to comply with a legal settlement signed in the wake of the London 2016 European Masters Championships.

In a judgment delivered at Nottingham County Court on 14 December 2022, Deputy Judge Stuart Smith concluded that British Swimming should have paid out the money more than two years ago. In addition to the £6,000 ruled due, the court ordered the governing body to pay interest on the sum as well as costs of more than £800.

The judge also said that there had been fault in managing the Masters’ funds which had created “significant difficulties” and made it “impossible” to see what had happened to the money British Swimming promised for Masters.  

When asked for comment on how much had been spent on the case, British Swimming stated: “British Swimming fully respect the legal process and the outcome. We look forward to continuing our positive work with the Masters swimming community, one that plays such an important role in the passion and quality of aquatics in Britain.”

British Swimming did not answer to the question of how much was spent defending the case. An expert source told SOS that at market rates it would expect the defence to have cost around £15,000 to £20,000. 

The legal claim was brought by Sue Arrowsmith, a Professor of Law and former expert to the International Partnership on Corruption in Sport. Prof. Arrowsmith was entrusted by the settlement with recovering for Masters swimming any funds not spent by April 2020. 

Background: Settlement over the European Masters Championships

Turbulence in the pool - by Craig Lord
Turbulence in the pool – by Craig Lord

The legal settlement that gave rise to the court case was concluded between British Swimming and several Masters’ swimmers following the LEN 2016 European Masters Championships in London. 

Failure to plan for the large numbers of entries for the event – described as a “fiasco”, “shambles” and the “worst-organised Masters event ever” in the post-event survey by YouGov – meant that both the Olympic competition and warm-up pools had to be used for racing. The problem was compounded by decisions to allocate a disproportionate number of women’s races to the warm-up pool, leading to allegations of discrimination.

Many swimmers were also angry after being told to withdraw some of their accepted entries to accommodate more swimmers and were left further frustrated by the dissolution of the GB Masters Committee in the run-up to the European competition.

These events led to five swimmers threatening legal proceedings for breach of equality and consumer laws, not for personal benefit but to address what some of them perceived as the governance and culture issues that had contributed to the problems with the event. The result was the 2016 legal settlement, negotiated by Prof. Arrowsmith with pro bono support from Bird & Bird solicitors. 

Under the settlement, British Swimming apologised for the problems with the event, promised to restore the Masters Committee, and stated that it would analyse the data from the event and use it “to continue to strive to achieve our objective of equal treatment”. 

The settlement also included an undertaking to allocate £12,000 to be used for Masters. The swimmers who signed the settlement agreed that the money could be retained in British Swimming’s accounts. It was also agreed that the planned GB Masters Group, which was chaired from 2017-2018 by Verity Dobbie and subsequently by Nicola Latty, could decide how to use the money up to 31 March 2020, either for its own expenses or for other Masters activities. 

The settlement also included a crucial clause requiring British Swimming to make any remaining money available to Prof. Arrowsmith or other persons nominated by the swimmers, to use for Masters, if the governing body refused to provide the funds to the Group or if there were any funds left after the end of March 2020. 

According to the judgment, British Swimming claimed that only £4,615.27 was left and also that it was, anyway, not required to pay over any remaining money to Prof. Arrowsmith.

Court Order – Sue Arrowsmith vs British Swimming

The county court disagreed and in it’s judgment handed down just before Christmas – and supplied to this author by the court – concluded that British Swimming was required to hand over £6,000  (out of £10,000 claimed) to Prof. Arrowsmith to use for Masters swimming in accordance with the terms of the settlement. 

The court also ordered the federation to add to this several hundreds of pounds of interest under the County Court Act to take account of the fact that the money should have been paid out back in 2020. 

Prof. Arrowsmith has given instructions for British Swimming to pay the money to solicitors’ firm Bird & Bird, and for Bird & Bird to hold it for use for Masters purposes, as she had originally requested.

In addition, the court ordered British Swimming to reimburse Prof. Arrowsmith £819.10 for the costs incurred in bringing the proceedings and paying for the court hearing.

SOS understands that payment was required within 14 days of the judgment and that British Swimming has complied with the court order by paying the money into the account of Bird & Bird, where it will be held pending its use for Masters swimming purposes.

Professor Arrowsmith brought proceedings using the small claims procedure of the county court and conducted the litigation in person without legal representation. 

British Swimming was represented by solicitors’ Brabners, including the Manchester Head of Litigation Jeff Lewis, while barrister Joel Finnan of Exchange Chambers prepared the Defence and argued the case in court. Maurice Watkins, who was Chairman of British Swimming at the time the proceedings were brought in March 2021 and passed away later that year, was at one time a partner in Brabners.

Prof. Arrowsmith commented: “This has all been a shocking waste of time and money that could have been much better spent on other things. Before starting court proceedings – obviously a last resort – I asked British Swimming to go to mediation but they rejected that offer.”

Fault Found In Way British Swimming Managed The Funds

Proceedings were held in open court, where the judge stated: “The manner in which British Swimming have managed the Masters account and the settlement fund has created significant difficulties”. He also said that it was impossible to identify from the accountancy records what had happened to the settlement money. He went on to state that “fault can be found” both with British Swimming and with the GB Masters Group.

Choppy waters … By Craig Lord

Latest in a line of governance complaints

The dispute that led to the court case over the settlement fund is one of several governance complaints made by some members of the Masters community against swimming regulators. In 2017, 23 prominent Masters swimmers and representatives sent an open letter to British Swimming enumerating key complaints related to the London 2016 Europeans, including concerns over what Masters described as a failure to follow up on the equality commitment in the settlement agreement. There were also complaints about the nomination process to the FINA Masters Committee.    

SOS also understands that 50 swimmers who have all been directly involved in running English Masters – including many regional and county reps and past winners of the Cherriman award – sent a private letter to then CEO of British Swimming Jack Buckner, just before his departure to the same role at UK Athletics, in support of the efforts of Swim England Masters Chair Jeroen Peters to get British Swimming to listen to English Masters’ concerns over how that body deals with Masters’ affairs. 

It is understood that the matter has since been passed on to the new British Swimming Chair, Karen Webb Moss. Masters have told SOS that, quite apart from frustration over the handling of the settlement funds, there are still several outstanding concerns, including over international nominations. 

One key figure in the Masters community said that while Masters discontent over London 2016 and its aftermath dates back to the time that David Sparkes was at the helm of the domestic federation as CEO, his successors at British Swimming could have avoided any further animosity over 2016 by honouring the legal settlement over “what is, after all, a paltry sum to the federation”. 

The Masters swimmer added: “It’s a travesty that thousands of pounds have been sitting there unspent for so long. Hopefully, it can now finally be spent on useful activities for the benefit of the Masters community.”

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