Sports Arbitration: Litigating and Arbitrating Sports Disputes in France

  • Market Insight 06 June 2024 06 June 2024
  • UK & Europe

  • Disputes - Regulatory Risk

This is the third article in Clyde & Co’s international arbitration series covering the topic of Sports Arbitration. In this piece Associate Constance Malleville explore the resolution system for French sports disputes.

From contractual disputes to disciplinary matters, athletes, clubs, and sports organizations encounter a myriad of challenges. Delving into the intricacies of litigating and arbitrating sports disputes in France, this article sheds light on the diverse legal landscape of the French dispute resolution system, which has become even more relevant with the upcoming 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

A.    What is the legal framework governing sports activities in France?

The French Ministry of Sports oversees the operations of approximately 300,000 sports associations, each with unique funding and regulatory needs:

  • Associations: Governed by private law, these operate autonomously;
  • Associations belonging to federations: These are affiliated with federations that are regulated by private law;
  • Associations belonging to federations with the mission of Public Service: These federations are entrusted with a public service mission by the State (délégation de service public) and are therefore granted special “public” powers (prerogatives de puissance publique). Consequently, they are regulated both by private and public law when acting under these special “public” powers; and 
  • Associations belonging to federations recognized by the French National Olympic and Sports Committee (CNOSF): These federations are recognized by the CNOSF, which acts as France's representative in the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The CNOSF plays a pivotal role in promoting, developing, and regulating sports activities across the nation, ensuring adherence to international standards and fostering excellence in sporting endeavours.

B.    Where to bring your sports disputes in France? 

The diversity of sports-related disputes in France has led to a plurality of institutions, courts and tribunals to rule upon them.

1.    The French National Olympic and Sports Committee (CNOSF)

The CNOSF acts as a conciliator in France in disputes between licensees, sports agents, sports associations and federations, with the exception of disputes involving doping. Of note, such conciliation is mandatory before filing any request before the French administrative courts. 

2.    Sports Federations

In addition to their regulatory powers, sports federations are invested with the authority to settle any disputes arising from their decisions. A majority of the disputes handled by federations are non-disciplinary, typically involving issues arising from the application of sporting regulations, the functioning of the federation or access to a competition (such as selection, qualification, relegation, and license denial), as well as validation or authentication of results. To comply with French regulations, sports federations must provide licence-holders a right of appeal. 

In the football industry, the Fédération internationale de football association (FIFA) is well known for having established the Football Tribunal, which hears football-related disputes between clubs and players in relation to contractual or employment issues.

3.    Civil and Criminal Courts 

In principle, civil courts (tribunaux judiciaires) are the ordinary courts to settle sports disputes, covering a wide array of private law matters such as insurance claims, liability claims, claims for damages, contracts, actions for nullity of a contract. Moreover, any disputes resulting from decisions or acts of sports associations and federations that are governed by private law will be heard before civil courts. By way of exception, labour courts (Conseil de Prud’hommes) have exclusive jurisdiction to rule upon disputes relating to the conclusion, execution or termination of employment contracts of referees, coaches, players, educators, managers, athletes, etc.

Sports activities may trigger the criminal liability of individuals or corporate bodies in front of criminal courts. The most frequent criminal offenses are endangering the lives of others, intentional or unintentional violence, as well as intentional assault and battery. Offenses against the safety of sports event organizers are also common. Additionally, doping-related offenses (excluding simple consumption, which is not a criminal offense) are regularly prosecuted.

4.    Administrative Courts (Tribunaux administratifs)

As indicated above, sports associations and federations entrusted with a public service mission are governed by public law to some extent. Hence, administrative courts have jurisdiction to adjudicate any disputes arising thereof. In this case, the dispute must be brought before the administrative court within the jurisdiction of the headquarters of the sports association or federation that issued the disputed decision or measure. In practice, many sports federations have their headquarters in Paris, and the Paris Administrative Court is therefore actively ruling upon sports disputes. In order to bring sport-related claims before the administrative courts, remedies provided by sports federations and conciliation before the CNOSF must have been exhausted.

5.    Arbitration

In France, sports arbitration is a well-established practice, frequently preferred to court litigation for its efficiency and confidentiality. 

The most renown institution for arbitrating sport disputes is the Court of Arbitration for Sport based in Lausanne, Switzerland, which provides a specialized forum with expert arbitrators in sports law.

In France, the CNOSF has also created the Sports Arbitration Chamber (Chambre Arbitrale du Sport, CAS) in 2007, “[i]n order to facilitate the resolution of disputes arising from the practice or development of sport development of sport and, more generally, of any activity directly or indirectly related to directly or indirectly to sport”, as put by Article 1 of the CAS Arbitration Rules. The CAS is particularly suitable for resolving private law disputes, specifically in matters of contracts between sports agents and professional players or clubs, sponsorship contracts, athlete image rights and exploitation rights of sporting events, television broadcasting contracts, disputes regarding the amount of compensation of player transfers, partnership agreements, contracts for the provision of sports equipment and, in general, any private contractual disputes between an agent and/or an athlete and/or their federations.

Any arbitration brought before the CAS shall be governed by the CAS Arbitration Rules, which have last been amended in 2020. As in any arbitration, the aggrieved party should initiate the proceedings by filing a request for arbitration which must include a description of the dispute and the relief sought, and which should demonstrate the existence of the parties’ consent to arbitrate, either through an arbitration clause included within the parties’ litigious contract, or by mutual agreement of the parties after the dispute has arisen. In this regard, it is worth noting that the administrative regulations of the French Professional Football League (LFP) now stipulate that commercial disputes over 50,000 euros relating to player loans and transfers between French professional clubs, must be submitted to arbitration before the CAS. 

Disputes brought before the CAS are resolved by either a single arbitrator or a panel of three arbitrators. Only individuals listed by the CAS, as approved by the CNOSF Board of Directors based on the recommendation of its ethics committee, can be appointed as arbitrators. Currently, this list includes 36 individuals, mainly lawyers, academics, and magistrates. Each arbitrator is required to maintain independence and impartiality throughout the proceedings and is bound by a strict obligation of confidentiality. 

Since its creation in 2007, the CAS has dealt with around twenty requests for arbitration, and, in 2021, the Paris Court of Appeal has ruled for the first time in a set aside proceedings against a CAS award.1 These are encouraging developments, but the overall outcome still remains modest. The CNOSF is dedicated to further promoting the CAS activities among legal and economic stakeholders in the sports industry to boost the number of arbitrations. Nevertheless, the jurisdiction of the CAS will always be limited in terms of the scope of disputes it can adjudicate since, as mentioned before, disputes involving acts and decisions of the French public authorities or of sports federations acting in a public service capacity exclusively fall under the jurisdiction of the French administrative courts, while disputes arising from employment contracts are subject to the mandatory jurisdiction of French labour courts.

C.    Conclusion 

This article highlights the complexities of the regulatory framework governing sports disputes in France, shaped by whether actors operate under private or public law. For years, court litigation held the reins in resolving these disputes. However, building on the foundation laid by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, a significant shift occurred in 2007 with the establishment of the French Sports Arbitration Chamber under the CNOSF. This marked the beginning of a new era, where the arbitration of sports disputes has been steadily gaining prominence in France. With the eagerly awaited 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris on the horizon, this evolving landscape is set for further transformation, likely leading to a surge in arbitrations dealt with by the Chamber.

Thanks are due to Mrs. Diana Karibian, intern at Clyde & Co, for her research assistance.

The series continues this week with a perspective from Shanghai.

1 CA Paris, 8 June 2021, n° 19/02245. 


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