Richard Booth has successfully defended a rugby union referee against allegations of negligence made in relation to his control of the scrum engagement in a match in which the Claimant hooker suffered a neck injury. Judgment in the case of F v M was handed down by His Honour Judge Karsten QC in the Central London County Court on 17th May 2010.

The cup match in question took place in December 2004. It was fiercely contested. Towards the end of the first half a scrum collapsed immediately after engagement. The calls to be made by a referee at a scrum at the time were, first, “crouch & hold” and then, after checking that both packs of forwards were ready, “engage”. This system of calls has since been superseded by the sequence “crouch, touch, pause, engage”.

The Claimant’s case was that the top of his head struck his opposing hooker’s right shoulder as the front rows engaged, causing his chin to be pressed into his chest and causing him to suffer pain in his neck. The Claimant claimed that the match referee, who was very experienced, had called “engage” too early, when the Claimant’s front row was not ready, and that this amounted to negligence and had caused his injury.

The Claimant and his two supporting prop forwards gave evidence at trial. The match referee and one touch judge also gave evidence, as did expert refereeing witnesses on each side.

After extensive cross-examination of the Claimant and his two props, the Judge, having considered Law 20 of the Laws of Rugby Union, found for the Defendant on the facts. The Judge found that the Claimant had not established that the referee had called “engage” too early at the scrum in question.

A subsidiary and unpleaded case emerged on behalf of the Claimant at trial, namely that the referee had repeatedly failed to penalise the opposing team for engaging too early at the scrums leading up to the scrum in question. The Judge dismissed this case too, finding that it would be stretching the law too far to hold the referee responsible for such foul play on the part of one of the teams.