Lawyers get World Cup fever

Times Online, June 09, 2006

The law firm press release, that most curious of phenomenona, grows more curious as the World Cup approaches. Not so long ago the very idea of a law firm issuing a press release would have been as fanciful as, say, an untried 17 year-old being called up for England duty. Now, the truth is stranger than Sven-Goran Eriksson. These days lawyers – those exemplars of rigour, rectitude and restraint – sup happily with the devil. Some even eschew the requisite long spoon, embracing the dark arts of PR in a Faustian pact that would be worrying were it not now so commonplace.

Sundry lawyers’ press releases pegged to the World Cup have been making their way around Fleet Street. They tend to follow a predictable form. The law firm in question highlights an unheralded legal problem that could ensue over the five-week football jamboree and offers expert comment on it. Hacks such as me then call up the law firm, get a quote and write a piece. There is nothing wrong with this methodology, save, in my case, that I would be much more inclined to quote whoever I am supposed to quote for a small incentive. A pair of tickets to England’s opener against Paraguay would do nicely.

Sadly, lawyers appear to be far too ethical. I have yet to be offered even a free lunch, let alone a jaunt to Germany. A bi-product of this bribe-free misery is that I have started reading the press releases in the hope that they might contain something interesting. One, from City firm Speechly Bircham, caught my eye.

Entitled The Offside Rule for Employers: Avoid Discrimination during the World Cup, the release warned of the dire consequences to employers should they ignore sex and race discrimination laws during the World Cup. It transpires that an employer allowing time off for men to watch the football could be acting unlawfully. Turning a blind eye to male employees whose time-keeping falls apart, or who slope off to the pub for afternoon games, could amount to direct or indirect sex discrimination. Given the diversity of the modern work-force, the sword of Damocles could also fall in the form of a claim for race discrimination should an employer allow employees time off to watch England games, but not those of another country.

It doesn’t stop there. Speechly Bircham’s press release ominously alludes to the dangers of "past or even future discrimination by comparison." An employer bending over backwards to be flexible during the World Cup may yet be penalised if, for example, a subsequent one-off request for time off for religious reasons is refused. "Employers must not forget what they've allowed in the past when considering requests in the future," says the release.

Good grief. Along with millions of people in the UK, I was looking forward to watching five weeks of top-quality football. This seems an innocent enough desire. Fortunately, being self-employed, I am responsible for my own adherence, or otherwise, to prevailing employment legislation, but one can only spare a thought for those in conventional employment, on whatever side of the fence they find themselves. For fear of being sued employers might decide to ban any time off to watch games, but where does that leave footie fans? Frustrated and resentful, they will deploy fiendish stratagems to procure their absence, but if they fail, they will be disruptive in the workplace. Productivity will founder, morale will vanish, lawyers will be called in. Is there any way of avoiding this dread scenario?

Luckily another press release arrives. This one has been dispatched by those kind people at www.fakealibi.co.uk. For the uninitiated, fakealibi is a service that specializes in the provision of elaborate bogus alibis, principally for people having affairs. The service is a force for good, for if it did not exist, says its spokesman, Rob Goulding, people having affairs might get caught, and how much damage would then be done? "We didn’t ask people to have affairs in the first place," says Goulding, whose service is now offering "World Cup alibis."

These, it appears, are for fakealibi’s conventional clients, those of extra-marital inclination. Fakealibi will cover for them by means of "ticket stubs, hotel and travel booking confirmations, flight/coach details, photos and other memento [sic]," including, bizarrely, "beer stained shirts."

But it seems to me, in light of Speechly Bircham’s warnings, that fakealibi have missed a trick. Instead of using the World Cup as cover for affairs, in a most non FIFA-endorsed manner, why not use its myriad of well-honed alibis so that Britain’s workforce can watch the football? There may, even now, be clandestine negotiations among Goulding and putative World Cup absentees so that fakealibi can save their bacon. To those who say that this is a fanciful, even absurd, notion, I say: Sven-Goran Eriksson.