Almanac Footy: Bad Law.






I am a criminal-defence solicitor so I believe in the penalty matching the crime, I believe in courts of appeal and I believe in judicial discretion.


I am most definitely against mandatory sentencing.


North Melbourne was robbed on Saturday.


At the outset, let me emphasise I’ve no argument with the poor umpire in this fiasco.


My problem, not for the first time in my professional life, is with the legislators.


The rule for interchange infringement – a free kick and 50m penalty – is an exceedingly blunt instrument.


It takes no account of the facts and circumstances of the individual case. It allows the poor on-field decision maker absolutely no discretion.


It is bad law.


There is a world of difference, I’d suggest between the following two scenarios:



  1. A side with only 19, or even less, fit players ringing the changes early in the last quarter while trying to hobble around and hold a six-goal lead. They might know they’re getting close to the 75 interchanges but, having turned their minds to the possibility of going over, just crashed ahead anyway, such was their desperation not to lose a big lead just because three players or so pulled up lame. That’s recklessness.
  2. A side who made a mistake, making two changes when only one was allowed, and doing so with the game right in the balance and only seconds remaining. That’s North.


The culpability is wildly different, but the penalty is exactly the same. Side No 1 might have gone on and engineered further breaches, happy to wear the penalty a few more times, if it meant it could get its best walking wounded to the spots they were needed and still hang on.


North couldn’t have, and I suggest wouldn’t have, done that.


What if play had been at the other end of the ground on Saturday? The Swans get a kick or two off half-back and North keep their lead and win.


The penalty is unfit as it stands. It might be fine as a maximum. There’s even a case for a greater maximum.


What is needed is a gradation of penalty (starting with a fine of, say, $5000 and going up to the current penalty or even some new maximum for egregious deliberate cheating).


The umpire needs to be invested with the discretion to impose a penalty that properly covers the criminal responsibility, or mere negligence, of any individual breach.


Yes, that might take a bit of time. The game will stop. The ump will consider, and perhaps consult with the whistle-blowing colleagues, and then decide. We’re used to such stoppages for (frequently nebulous) score reviews. We should have no issue with a delay for the right call here, because the stakes can be so very high.


North had nowhere to appeal, an important principle of the criminal law. I concede that setting up a mechanism for appealing match results would be cumbersome and might very well prove impossible. All the more reason to have a gradation of penalty and discretion in the ump to bring down proper punishment in the first place.


What North got was mandatory sentencing.


The way things stand, it might not mean that much at the end of this particular year.


But what if the four points going the other way in this match had had a bearing on who played finals?


And what if it had happened in a grand final?


It doesn’t bear thinking about.


Change the rule.



Andrew Fraser




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  1. Agree with your analysis but not your solution. Mandatory sentencing is appropriate in this situation. Asking umpire or umpires (do they have a 4 person conference with casting votes or “phone a friend” to Gillon/Dillon?) to determine a reasonable sanction in the heat of a match creates more uncertainty than it resolves. A football match – let alone final – is not the stately pace of deliberation of a court room.
    My thought would be a ‘send off’ 2 minute penalty (player chosen by the offending coach) so the team competes with 17 men for a period. Giving a free kick on field has all the arbitrariness/chance you describe of where? There is a randomness to the delay between the interchange official detecting an infringement and communicating it to the field umpire.

  2. Andrew Fraser says

    That’s a great solution, Peter.
    It’s moderate and reasonable but, above all, equal.
    Wherever and wherever applied, it cannot result immediately in such a catastrophic outcome as Saturday.
    I adopt it whole-heartedly.
    Thanks heaps.

  3. Andrew Fraser says


  4. Daryl Schramm says

    I didn’t watch the game, just the vision of the infringement. A 2-minute penalty of ‘one short’ does not cover the circumstance where there are less than two minutes left in the game. And that is when any infringements of this nature are most likely to occur.

    The culpability and outcome scenario is interesting, but it doesn’t wash when and obvious and blatant on-field discretion results in a free kick at the spot. Whether the ball is in the forward line or back line makes no difference. Why should it make any difference in the proposed idea?

    My ongoing view has been to have two interchange and two substitutes on the bench, with no limitations on the number of interchanges. That would (1) eliminate this scenario, (2) reduce the need for match officials to monitor ceilings, (3) increase the chances of a team able to overcome multiple injuries during a match, (4) minimise the ludicrous situation of players expending their energy sprinting off after kicking a goal. Coaches would adjust, as would players. Remember, it was the coaches what caused this hullabaloo in the first place.

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