Part-Time Football Referees Are Self-Employed, Tax Tribunal Rules

Part-time referees who officiate at professional football matches on a game-by-game basis are not employees. Confirming their self-employed status in a guideline case, the Upper Tribunal (UT) noted that they are so motivated to work that there is no need to place them under a contractual obligation to do so.

The case concerned the so-called 'National Group' of referees who are engaged by Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) to officiate at matches below Premier League level. They perform refereeing duties in their spare time, typically alongside other full-time employment, and receive expenses and match fees in respect of their services.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) said that they were employees and that Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions should, in respect of two tax years, have been deducted at source from those payments via the PAYE system. The First-tier Tribunal (FTT), however, preferred PGMOL's arguments that they were self-employed and that no such obligation arose.

In its decision, the FTT found that there were overarching annual contracts between PGMOL and the referees. There were also separate contracts in respect of each match for which a referee was engaged. Crucially, however, it ruled that there was no sufficient mutuality of obligation existing between PGMOL and the referees to render the relationship one of employment.

Dismissing HMRC's challenge to that outcome, the UT found that the referees were engaged under contracts for services, as opposed to contracts of service. PGMOL could cancel a referee's appointment to officiate a match without contractual limit and without committing a breach of contract. A referee could do the same for any reason, including illness, injury, other work commitments or even if a traffic jam made him or her late to a match.

A referee failing to turn up for a match would not amount to a breach of contract and the only obligation on PGMOL was to pay referees for work actually done. The reality of the arrangement was that referees were so keen to make themselves available for matches as much as possible that there was no need either to offer them work or to place them under any legal obligation to perform it. The minimum mutuality of obligation required to found an employment relationship was thus not present.