Full Tilt secure adjournment but players left in limbo

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Those hoping for a clear outcome from Full Tilt Poker’s regulatory hearing in London on Tuesday were left disappointed when the case was adjourned until a later date.

While somewhat anti-climatic, it was still a fascinating (if long) day for those present, and a number of very interesting points and issues did come to light, even if no overall conclusion was reached.

The setting for the hearing was the Victoria Park Plaza Hotel in London, with one of the Alderney Gambling Control Commission‘s (AGCC) commissioners, Isabel Picornell, in the chair. She was joined by fellow commissioner Jeremy Thompson and a legal adviser.

Full Tilt were being defended by a legal team led by counsel Mr Martin Heslop, while the Executive Director of the AGCC was represented by a team led by Mr Jason Hill.

Before things had even got properly started, a pre-hearing application was made by Mr Heslop. He wanted the hearing adjourned until a later date “in the interests of justice to all parties”.

There was more. Not only was he requesting an adjournment, but he was also submitting a further “pre-preliminary application” that the adjournment request be heard ‘in camera’ (a legal term meaning ‘in private’). He felt that the “considerable press interest” in the case meant that it was “not in the interests of justice for the matter which we rely upon for an adjournment to be aired in public”.

He referred to “highly commercially sensitive and confidential material – which if disclosed publically will have a highly damaging effect upon very sensitive negotiations for the acquisition of these licensing companies by a third party”.

To put it plainly: Full Tilt wanted the hearing delayed for reasons relating to their proposed takeover, but didn’t want to reveal details of the potential takeover in public. They felt such a move would be “to the prejudice of the customers of Full Tilt Poker and the public generally”.

Mr Heslop also revealed that the Executive Director of the AGCC had confirmed in a letter dated 22nd July that “we do not consent to the hearing being adjourned or being held in camera, but we do not propose to oppose your application”. Again, to put it plainly: Full Tilt had approached Alderney prior to the hearing to suggest a possible adjournment (and the potential for the adjournment request to be heard in private) and Alderney had neither endorsed nor opposed either suggestion.

Mr Heslop then cited precedents in the form of hearings in 2008 and 2010 that had been held in private. He also referred to Article 6 of the Human Rights Act, which confirmed that a hearing could be held in private “in special circumstances where publicity would be prejudicial to the interests of justice.”

In response to Mr Heslop, Mr Hill confirmed the Executive Director of the AGCC’s neutral stance regarding the requests, but did add that Full Tilt were facing two allegations relating to non-payment of licence fees which would be worthy of the chair’s consideration.

Mr Heslop responded to Mr Hill by revealing that Full Tilt took a “commercial decision” to not pay the licence fees because, as their licence was going to be revoked anyway, they saw no point in spending what amounted to £250,000 on licences “which no longer exist”. He then added that the £250,000 could be repaid “within seven days” as long as there remained a possibility after the hearing that Full Tilt’s licence could still be reinstated.

To be clear: Full Tilt Poker’s legal representatives stated to the AGCC that outstanding licence fees to the value of about £250,000 could be paid at seven day’s notice should the prospect of Full Tilt retaining their licence remain intact after the hearing.

Both sides agreed that any decision to allow the adjournment request to be heard in private should be kept under constant review.

The panel retired to consider their verdict, returning a short while later to reveal that they had granted Full Tilt’s application for the adjournment request to be heard in private. This would be kept under constant review.

This announcement provoked an angry reaction from one member of the gathered public, professional poker player Harry Demetriou.

“What about the interests of the players?” he bellowed, walking to the front of the room. “This is pathetic! It really is disgraceful! You really should be looking after the players’ interests and not the interests of a company that is corrupt and has not done anything or given any information. Thank you for nothing!”

His outburst was met with mutterings of “here here” as he stormed out of the room, murmurs which later developed into full blown applause from many seated in the public and press area.

Despite it being envisaged that the private hearing would only take about an hour and a half, it was over six hours later that the public were finally allowed back into the hearing room. If perhaps 80-100 members of the press and public had been present at the beginning of the day, probably only about 20 were now left.

They were offered a short statement by Picornell, confirming that Full Tilt’s request for an adjournment had been granted. The AGCC had been “persuaded” that allowing Full Tilt Poker to “pursue advanced commercial negotiations” was “in the interest of justice and in the best interests of Full Tilt Poker e-gaming customers”. The new hearing would be held no later than 15 September 2011.

Mr Heslop confirmed to Gambling Insider after the hearing that it was not yet decided if the new hearing would be held in private, and that it was for the AGCC to decide. He added that he was not yet sure if Full Tilt would be requesting to the AGCC that the new hearing be a private one. So who were the real winners at the end of all this? Full Tilt Poker certainly got what they wanted out of the day in the form of the adjournment. The AGCC don’t appear to have done too badly either, seeing as they now know for sure that they could receive the licence money they are owed at a later date.

Despite today’s decision apparently being taken in the interests of the players, they seemed to have fared worst of all. They learned very little from the day, other than that what went on was apparently for their own good. Certainly Harry Demetriou didn’t appear to be a man who was happy with what he was hearing.

Maybe this “third-party” deal will go through and players will get their money back, but that’s very much a ‘maybe’. Who’s to say things won’t go the other way, with this delay allowing Full Tilt to bankrupt themselves and start again, thus managing to avoid paying players the owed funds? It’s certainly not impossible.

One thing that is clear is that the idea of a public hearing has been made a mockery of, especially considering that it seems discussions regarding a potential adjournment/private adjournment request were talking place between the two sides at least four days before the hearing date. Did both sides know in advance that this was how it was all going to play out?

Either way, player anger will surely now focus on the fact that the two sides have seemingly settled on a position that suits both of them, while those stuck in the middle are still none the wiser.
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