The shorthand for disciplinary boards of this type is that you have made us fed-up, so we are going to make an example of you. Dear Clare, it really is embarrassing for you to blurt out that the British government is complicit in spying on Kofi Annan. The secretary-general of the UN is a mate of ours. I know that's not the way to treat our friends but it's not the done thing to tell the world how ill-mannered the engine room staff can be. It's a disciplinary board offence.
If she were a surveyor, we could bring her before the RICS disciplinary board; if an architect, we could use the Architects Registration Board; if an arbitrator, the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators; if a builder, the Chartered Institute of Building; or if a hockey or netball player, we could haul her up before their regulatory panels. And remember, the disciplinary board isn't there to just to deal with narrow professional issues. No, no, it can treat all kinds of things as "conduct likely ". I notice, for example, that the RICS may sling out a member for possessing class A drugs.
Who shall we choose for Clare? Let's have a real bungling amateur disciplinary board shall we? Here is one with a posh name: it is The Royal Burgess Golfing Society of Edinburgh. One of its members recently got on the wrong side of the committee. Mr Irvine broke the rules. Damn it, this chap committed the awful sin of swinging a golf club on the first tee while improperly dressed. No, he wasn't naked but for a sporran and tam o'shanter. It was just as bad, though. His shoes had no spikes!
Now, let me warn you about two things. Disciplinary boards have a tendency to operate like police forces. Open the door with an offence, even a minor one, and it's like a pack of hounds catching the scent of the fox. The committee roots under those stones, under hedges, in ditches for whatever else it can find.
The second warning is about the accused. There is a real chance that this fellow will fight back. Disciplinary boards are there to frighten the life out of the members, to persuade people to jump to. Snag is, that the accused's reputation is on the line. The people sitting in judgment are the accused's peers. Being reprimanded or fined or slung out by your club dents self-esteem – which is, of course, precisely the point about disciplinary boards. The idea is to make the member look a twerp – and when the Royal Burgess Golfing Society told Mr Irvine he was guilty of "endangering the character interests and good order of the society" and told him to clear off for a year, he took the society to the Scottish High Court. And once a real judge looked over the behaviour of this disciplinary board, he threw out the society's conclusions about Mr Irvine.
Disciplinary boards are there in truth to frighten the life out of members, to persuade people to jump to. The idea is to make the member look a twerp
The want of spikes was the excuse to "have" Mr Irvine. Complaints were heaped on him. He was accused of failing to quell the rowdy behaviour of fellow members' guests. Then he was blamed for hastening the retirement of the club's bar steward and his wife. He was even blamed for being a successful local businessman.
Trouble was, the committee and clerk sat down together and decided how to characterise this fellow's conduct without telling him what the charges were and without asking him to account for himself. Mr Irvine told the Scottish judge that he thought it was all a witch hunt and the judge was sympathetic. There was, he said, "a clear desire to punish the petitioner arising from a pre-judgment of the issue that the [disciplinary] counsel had to determine that does them no credit".
Dear me, it seems that this disciplinary board has brought its own club into disrepute. Perhaps they will have to appear before themselves to account for their conduct.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator specialising in construction. You can write to him at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple, London EC4 7EY, or email him on firstname.lastname@example.org.