Brian Hunt: Attempts to reform gaming laws in Ireland
Brian Hunt, partner at Ronan Daly Jermyn, explores the history of gambling law reform in Ireland.
The regulation of betting activities has always been distinct from that which applied to gaming and lotteries. The licensing of bookmakers in Ireland was first provided for by the Betting Act of 1926 (later replaced by the Betting Act 1931) and has always been strictly controlled. It was many years later before there was any attempt to permit regulated gaming and lotteries activities. Dating from 1956, the Gaming and Lotteries Act reflects the predominant attitude of that time towards gambling. Speaking at the Second Stage debate in the Dáil in 1955, the then Minister for Justice said that “gaming and lotteries are … activities which, in our view are rather to be tolerated than favoured”.
While the 1931 and 1956 Acts have been amended on a number of occasions, the regulatory regime in Ireland which applies to betting and gaming has not kept apace with technological developments. These changes have resulted in businesses operating in the sector evolving from traditional high street betting shops and gaming arcades serving local customers to online platforms serving customers around the globe.
So far, the reform of the regulatory frameworks governing betting and gaming has been piecemeal. For an overview of recent legislative reforms that have been enacted, please click here. The reforms of recent years have generally been couched in terms of their being merely interim measures, pending the implementation of more wide-ranging and comprehensive reforms.
The shape of possible reforms have been considered on several occasions and while much time has been spent committing thoughtful reforms to paper. There now follows a brief overview of some of the initiatives over the past 20 years that were intended to serve as a prelude to wholesale reform.
Review of the Gaming and Lotteries Acts 1956-86 (2000)
In its Report entitled Review of the Gaming and Lotteries Acts, the Interdepartmental Review Group put forward 47 recommendations aimed at delivering wide-ranging reforms in relation to the regulation of gaming and lotteries, and proposed that the 1956 Act be replaced with new legislation.
Regulating Gaming in Ireland (2008)
In its Report entitled Regulating Gaming in Ireland, the Casino Regulation Committee made 32 recommendations focused on the delivery of much-needed reforms, including the proposal to establish a new regulatory regime. Somewhat remarkably, when publishing the Report, the then Minister for Justice indicated that technological advances associated with the online betting and gaming meant that the topic required yet further detailed analysis and he immediately announced the establishment of a Cross-Party Committee to consider the matter further.
Options for Regulating Gambling (2010)
In 2010, the then Minister for Justice published a Report entitled Options for Regulating Gambling. The Report arose from a public consultation process regarding the proposed reform of gambling laws.
The Report proposed the introduction of a unified regulator for gambling which would form part of the Department of Justice. The Report also envisaged that responsibility for the regulation of betting would be transferred from the Minister for Finance to the Minister for Justice and Law Reform.
Gambling Control Bill (2013)
The General Scheme (draft) Gambling Control Bill, running to 83 sections, was approved by Government in July 2013. The Bill proposed extensive reform of the sector and also provided for the repeal of the Betting Act 1931 and the Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956.
Gambling Control Bill 2018
In 2018, the Fianna Fáil Party published the Gambling Control Bill as a Private Members Bill. The Fianna Fáil Bill largely reflects the content of the Government’s draft 2013 Bill. The Bill proposed the establishment of the Office of Gambling Control Ireland as an Executive Office established in the Department of Justice. The Bill passed Second Stage in the Dáil and lapsed upon the dissolution of the Dáil.
Future Licensing and Regulation of Gambling (2019)
The Inter-Departmental Working Group on the Future Licensing and Regulation of Gambling published its Report in March 2019. The Working Group had been tasked with reviewing
the General Scheme of the Gambling Control Bill 2013, and determining whether the provisions of the 2013 General Scheme remained fit for purpose in light of domestic and international developments in the area of gambling.
The Working Group recommended significant reform of the licensing and regulatory approach to gambling and it identified some new and emerging issues that had not been addressed by the 2013 General Scheme.
Particularly noteworthy was the Working Group’s recommendation that the approach to licensing that had been proposed in the 2013 General Scheme be significantly rationalised. The Group considered that licensing should reflect from 43 categories to 6, as follows:
- Gaming and lotteries,
- Gaming machines,
- Casinos, and
- On-line gambling.
The Group also recommended that further consideration be given to a more horizontal approach to licensing with the potential for the issuing of single gambling licences across a range of activities, for Business to Business operators and Business to Customer (gaming and betting) operators.
Significantly, at the same time as it decided to establish this particular Inter-Departmental Working Group, the Government also formally agreed to the concept of establishing an independent regulatory authority for the gambling industry. This marks a radical departure from the approach that had been proposed under the 2013 General Scheme (i.e. that of an Office for Gambling Control operating within the Department of Justice and Equality).
As a way forward, the Working Group felt that the UK Gambling Commission and also the Malta Gaming Authority could serve as a critical reference point for the development of an Irish regulatory authority.
Gambling Control Bill (2021)
In the Programme for Government (June 2020), the newly formed Government pledged that it “will establish a gambling regulator focused on public safety and wellbeing, covering gambling online and in person, and the powers to regulate advertising, gambling websites and apps.”
The Government’s Legislation Programme (Sept 2020) indicated that the drafting of revised heads of the Gambling Control Bill were underway. It is expected that the Bill will provide for the establishment of an independent gambling regulator and will propose comprehensive reform of the regulatory framework under which betting and gaming is permitted.
Few areas of law have been the subject of repeated reviews and analysis over such a prolonged period of time, all with the wholesome objective of delivering the best possible set of reforms, but never quite achieving it. Meanwhile the betting and gaming sector in Ireland and those operators outside Ireland having customers based here, continue to innovate and expand their reach. The delivery of a modern regulatory framework has the potential to make Ireland an attractive location for firms in the betting and gaming sectors.
Will the much needed reforms be implemented in 2021? Judging from the pattern that has developed over the past 20 years, I wouldn’t bet on it.