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What is the AFL Tribunal?

Most sporting bodies or associations have a tribunal, or some group that interprets and enforces the rules of the game. These groups, usually "disciplinary" in nature, are known as "domestic tribunals" (as opposed to tribunals that regulate and interpret our laws such as the Immigration Review Tribunal). Football also has its own tribunal - the AFL Tribunal.

Like the umpires, the Tribunal gets its power from the Commission. The Tribunal is made up of a Chairperson and Deputy, who must be lawyers with at least seven years experience, and a panel of not more than ten people who have a knowledge of Aussie Rules. The Chairman (or Deputy) hears cases together with two panel members.

What does the Tribunal do?

Like any tribunal, the AFL Tribunal was set up to interpret and enforce the rules, and if necessary, discipline those players who break the rules.

The AFL Tribunal is not meant to be like a court – they don’t go about their business with the same formality as a court. Otherwise the hearings would take too long, cost too much, and make it impractical to regulate footy. But as we will see, this doesn’t mean the Tribunal members can just do whatever they like.

The procedure

According to the rules, it is up to the Tribunal Chairman to decide how the hearing will be run, except that :

  • players are not allowed to be represented by lawyers, except when the charge is under the Racial & Religious Vilification Rule or there is an alleged breach of the AFL Anti-Doping Code (that's why Alistair Lynch was allowed to have a lawyer);

  • the hearing has to be conducted with the least formality possible;

  • the Tribunal can decide, by majority, the penalty it hands out; and

  • certain obligations to act fairly are observed.

Natural justice

The AFL Tribunal has to act fairly in the way it deals with a footballer. The laws calls this the obligation to "accord natural justice". This means:

  • the player has to know the reason he has been reported, and the way in which the umpire (or the AFL) believes he has broken the rules;

  • the player must be given an opportunity to answer the charge;

  • the Tribunal has to act in "good faith", making a decision that is reasonable and could be honestly arrived at.

Burden of proof

So there’s evidence presented at the Tribunal. But how strong does that evidence have to be? In other words, what is the "burden of proof", how much of a case does the AFL have to make to prove the player is guilty of the charge?

In courts there are two types of burdens of proof – civil and criminal in criminal cases it is more severe, because of the possibility of a penalty (like prison or a fine), so the court or jury has to be convinced "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the offence occurred.

The AFL Tribunal doesn't hear criminal charges, so the civil burden of proof applies - a player is guilty of the charge if, "on the balance of probabilities" he committed the offence.

According to the High Court, this means a "reasonable satisfaction that the allegation is made out, bearing in mind the seriousness of the allegation made, the inherent unlikelihood of the occurrence…or the gravity of consequences following from the finding".

Clear as Waverly on a foggy day, yeah? Think of it this way – the Tribunal weighs up the possible explanations for what happened and then decides, on the "balance of probabilities", if one version of the cause is more probable than not. If the Tribunal is not satisfied to that extent, the charge should be dismissed and the reported player given the benefit of the doubt.

Onus of proof

It's not up to the player to prove he didn't do it it's up to the Tribunal, on the basis of the evidence, to find him guilty. Lawyers call this the "onus of proof".

What, no oath?

Unlike a court, there is no swearing in – what’s the point, it would have nothing more than a moral value because the AFL Tribunal can’t have you charged with perjury anyway.


Do you want to read about the Tribunal hearing?