On 18 May 2020, the Gambling Commission announced planned changes to its Regulatory Panels. In its introduction it explained:
“Due to changes in the gambling market and gambling regulation, the cases that are heard by Regulatory Panels are becoming increasingly complex and legalistic. [The Gambling Commission is] consulting on a number of proposals to ensure that [its] Regulatory Panels are best equipped to deal with…evolving casework.”
The Gambling Commission proposes:
- To employ four to six adjudicators, who are legally qualified, solely for the purposes of sitting on Regulatory Panels. The “presumption” is that they will provide legal advice to the Regulatory Panel, although the Gambling Commission will retain the option for a legal adviser to attend. This legal advice would be shared as part of the Regulatory Panel process, in the same way as at present.
- Reconstitute the Regulatory Panel quorum as follows: (a) operating licences: one Commissioner and one Adjudicator; and (b) personal licences: one Adjudicator.
- To use a Regulatory Panel “occasionally”, if asked by Gambling Commission staff to provide “steers” on regulatory settlement proposals (delegation of approval will remain with Executive Directors) and financial penalties.
These changes are believed to provide a “cost-effective” way of conducting hearings, with the Gambling Commission claiming the following advantages:
- they provide “a broader range of combined experience and ensure such skills do not atrophy by being regularly utilised”;
- Regulatory Panel members will have greater availability to hear cases;
- shorter waiting times for hearings;
- other regulators adopt similar models; and
- cost savings “meaning that costs awarded against the losing party will be lower overall”.
The consultation provides basic details of costs (approximately £1,000 per day per Adjudicator) and potential savings. However, the likely calibre and experience of an Adjudicator is unclear.
“Increasingly complex and legalistic”
The consultation provides no evidence to demonstrate that “the cases that are heard by Regulatory Panels are becoming increasingly complex and legalistic”. Other than published decisions, and procedural rules, no information is publicly available on the work of the Regulatory Panel, including the number of cases heard or matters referred, the number of hearings and the waiting times.
In our experience and in general, it is a misconception to say cases have become “increasingly complex and legalistic”. Any case that reaches the Regulatory Panel will be substantial and complex, and often, legalistic. Revocation, suspension and a hefty fine are on the table, so what is wrong with that?
There is no denying that the firm’s work has become more complex, but this boils down to a noticeably changed approach to gambling regulation in Great Britain, influenced by various factors. Factors include a new Chief Executive, high turnover of Gambling Commission staff, not providing reasonable periods of time to licensees (but giving itself months on end) and – regrettably – procedural issues and failings by the Gambling Commission, which jeopardise the right to a fair and proper hearing.
Erosion of independence
Regulatory Panels provide an important opportunity for applicants and licensees to attend an oral hearing to challenge decisions made by Gambling Commission staff.
The independence of employed Adjudicators, recruited and appraised by the Gambling Commission, is questionable, encroaching on its supposed “values” (as set out in its Corporate Strategy 2018-2021) to be:
- professional; and
The very purpose of the Regulatory Panel is to give the applicant/licensee the opportunity to challenge a “minded to” decision reached by Gambling Commission staff. This is a critical control and protection, which is being weakened – by the Gambling Commission – in this consultation. The Regulatory Panel is the only quasi-independent option available to an applicant/licensee. Although it is still the Gambling Commission making the decision it is invaluable and must be protected.
The consultation does not include an adjudication governance framework, which could go some way in addressing independence concerns by ensuring decisions are fair, with clear separation of the Regulatory Panel from the Gambling Commission’s Licensing, Enforcement and Legal departments. It also does not specify which regulatory models and regulators were examined. As I mentioned in my earlier blog on 1 May 2020, many other regulators use registrant or industry panel members – not employees – who bring with them a wealth of knowledge and independence, assuming potential conflicts are managed.
By way of example, approximately half of the Financial Conduct Authority’s Regulatory Decisions Committee’s 18 members come from finance or financial services backgrounds. The other half have esteemed legal, governance, policy or academic backgrounds. Independence is further emphasised by the FCA handbook stipulation that:
- none of the members are employees; and
- the committee has its own legal advisers and support staff.
Independence is likely to be further eroded by changes to quorum. Presently, a Regulatory Panel must be made up of at least two Commissioners, although normally it will comprise three Commissioners. Under the proposed arrangements there will, at most, be one Commissioner, with no Commissioners sitting on hearings relating to personal licences. The latter will be considered by a single Adjudicator, who will receive one day of training annually, presumably from the Gambling Commission. It is unimaginable that the Gambling Commission would consider one day of training annually to be sufficient education for anyone working in the gambling industry!
Taking a cynical view, Adjudicators may be guided by the Gambling Commission’s recommendations, further eroding independence of the Regulatory Panel.
The loss is not simply one of independence. The proposed reduction to a maximum of one or two panel members is unjust. A Regulatory Panel of one Commissioner, as opposed to the standard three, particularly for operating licence hearings, will undoubtedly impact on the fairness of the hearing and regulatory decision. Surely, particularly in complex matters, there is a strong argument for retaining that number, not reducing to one Commissioner? What happens if a Regulatory Panel of two is spilt on the decision? Who has the binding vote? Is it the Adjudicator because they will “ordinarily” provide the legal advice to the Regulatory Panel? Presently, one Commissioner presides over the proceedings, but all three have equal decision-making powers.
How will the Adjudicator manage the role of legal adviser to the Regulatory Panel whilst also being a member? By way of comparison, the Solicitors Regulation Authority uses an Adjudication Panel; however, it has a minimum of two members and will normally comprise three, excluding the independent legal adviser.
“Me, myself and I”
A Regulatory Panel of one member is not a panel. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a panel to mean “a small group of people chosen to give advice, make a decision or publicly discuss their opinions”. It is therefore misleading to suggest a single Adjudicator considering personal licence hearings would establish a Regulatory Panel.
In such hearings there may be an argument that a decision made by a new-style Regulatory Panel fails to be “independent and impartial”, in accordance with the Human Rights Act 1998.
Disappointingly, the consultation, which closes on 26 June 2020, signals another marked change in regulation. If introduced, there will be an unescapable loss of diversity, given the Commissioners’ varied backgrounds, and the principles of fairness and natural justice will be compromised.
Ultimately, the Regulatory Panel should be about making good decisions in the public interest, following a fair process. A new or modernised process should not be pursued at the expense of the quality and fairness of the outcome. Poor quality decisions that are not robust or consistent will result in more cases being appealed.
It seems to us that the Regulatory Panel has been functioning well providing independence, fairness and much needed separation from the executive arm of the Gambling Commission, which is embroiled in the day to day business of the investigatory and review work and, quite understandably, can lack perspective. A legitimate failing is the length of time taken to constitute Regulatory Panels, but surely there are better ways to address this, for example, with more Commissioners? Instead, the cynic might be tempted to conclude that the Gambling Commission does not like the decisions the Regulatory Panel is reaching.
In conclusion, the proposed changes do not offer a practical vision for adjudication that is consistent with good regulatory and legal practice. There is nothing to suggest that fairness has been a consideration. The only consideration appears to be about saving cost, time for the Gambling Commission and Commissioners, and speeding up the process. In doing so, the duty to act fairly has been sacrificed.