FEI five-star judge, Leif Törnblad, temporarily suspended

Messrs. Schelstraete and Wawrzyniak of Schelstraete Equine Lawyers, the member of the Alliance of European US Asian Equine Lawyers, successfully filed on behalf Mr Sjef Janssen a complaint before the Fédération Équestre Internationale (the FEI) against Mr Leif Törnblad, a five-star FEI judge, following his interview in the Horse Magazine published in September 2017. In this interview Mr  Törnblad adopted negative statement about Mr Sjef Janssen and the Dutch equestrian sport.

Following the argumentation of Schelstraete Equine Lawyers the FEI found Mr Törnblad guilty of a breach of Article 2 of the Codex for FEI Dressage Judges that states:

“A Judge must avoid any actual or perceived conflict of interest. A judge must have a neutral, independent and fair position towards riders, owners, trainers, organizers and other officials and integrate well into a team”.

Leif Törnblad. Foto: Arnd Bronkhorst / www.arnd.nl

Press release regarding the case of the Ukrainian judges Mrs Irina Shulga, Mrs Maria Dzhumadzuk and the National Equestrian Federation of Ukraine against the FEI

luc-en-piotrMessrs. Luc Schelstraete and Piotr Wawrzyniak of European Equine Lawyers, with the head office in the Netherlands, represent Mrs Irina Shulga, Mrs Maria Dzhumadzuk and the National Federation of Ukraine in the appeal proceedings against the FEI before the FEI Tribunal in Lausanne. Just to remind our  Mrs Shulga and Mrs Dzhumadzuk have been accused by the FEI of nationalistic judging during the CDI in Lier in March 2016 and were on these grounds suspended by the FEI.

Recently, whilst the abovementioned appeal proceedings have still been pending and were still considered to be “confidential and private” an article on this matter was published on Eurodressage website under the title “Ukrainian Judges Dzhumadzhuk and Shulga Suspended for Nationalistic Judging at 2016 CDI Lier”. Eurodressage confirmed later to the representatives of the National Federation of Ukraine that the source of this information was the FEI itself.

In the best interest of the dressage sport and the equestrian community Messrs. Schelstraete and Wawrzyniak consider it necessary to react – on a personal note and title –  regarding the matter. They express their concerns regarding the fundamental legal principles like fair trail and equality of arms that in their personal opinion are being violated not only in these particular proceedings but more generally in any kind of proceedings before the FEI.

“After another publication (read: the aforementioned article on Eurodressage) related to the matter we feel we need to defend our Client’s good name and reputation towards the equestrian community and public. Until now we have stuck to the procedural rules within the FEI and the requested confidentiality of the appeal proceedings but we must fairly state that the procedural rules have very little to do with modern fair trail principle. They are rather of autocratic nature and more importantly the FEI is not following them either see its press releases related to the matter. The procedures of the FEI and the material provisions of which the FEI takes disciplinary measures (not only when it comes to the suspension of our Clients that we are appealing from) are in our opinion extremely vague. We miss transparency on the decision making process (who does what within the FEI, no checks and balances and no trias politica). 

We note that the procedural rules are obscure. Paraphrasing Napoleon’s view on the constitution we could state that they are short and obscure so that the FEI can interpret them in any way they deem to find necessary. This is also what the FEI seems to do. The FEI acknowledges for instance that there is no definition of “nationalistic judging”. Yet Our Clients have been accused hereof and suspended on these grounds. According to the FEI they should have understood they were acting in any nationalistic way. The FEI investigated such and established – as they stated – proof of the nationalistic judging prior to informing Our Clients about those accusations. Later, they told Our Clients they were to defend themselves but none of the so-called evidence was presented to them until the FEI filed its response in appeal. They were found guilty before they were accused of the nationalistic judging. We also note that there were other reports and complaints about alleged “nationalistic judging” in the recent months. Some of the persons / institutions filing them did not receive any response of the FEI. The FEI seems to act in an arbitrary manner here.

The fair trial, the presumption of innocence, the equality of arms and the nulla poena sine lege principle on which modern legal systems of criminal and disciplinary proceedings are based these days do not seem to be applicable within the FEI. Since the CDI in Lier Our Clients have been media trialed without that the case has been decided on the merits. Already on 22 March 2016 the FEI judged that Our Clients were guilty of nationalistic judging. Officially, as late as 1 April 2016 they were addressed to react to the allegations of the FEI. Referring to the aforementioned FEI press communique of 22 March 2016: “This [Our Client’s judging] was a clear example of nationalistic judging and the FEI takes this very seriously”, FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez said. Opposite to modern legal systems Our Clients were found and have been considered guilty of nationalistic judging until they will prove otherwise. 

The FEI further tries to refuse Our Clients basic human rights during the process in terms of reacting to the FEI appeals, hearing of witnesses and the nature of the FEI Tribunal hearing itself. We requested a public hearing so that the press could attend too. Particularly in this case, the FEI refused to disclose the evidence regarding the alleged nationalistic judging arising of the throughout investigation to our clients. 

We would like though to appreciate the position of the FEI Tribunal that where is can do its best to take the fair trail principles into account within this very limited and obscure procedural framework. The FEI has so far acknowledged our Client’s legal interest in receiving the evidence of FEI, hearing their witnesses and reacting to the FEI appeal pleadings. The FEI Tribunal has still to decide on our request regarding the public hearing. 

Whatever the outcome of the appeal proceedings shall be, we call on the FEI and all its stakeholders to change and amend its procedural rules, judging system of the dressage events, its disciplinary rules and to update them in accordance with the 21st century standards. The current status quo will only further damage the image and the reputation of the equestrian sports and more particular dressage.