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The NRL has declared itself above the law with its shabby treatment of Anthony Milford

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The NRL has all but declared itself above the law with reports it will review CCTV footage of the much talked-about Anthony Milford incident before deciding whether to allow him back into the game.

It has also backed itself into a corner.

If the NRL decides not to register Milford as a player, it is saying it does not accept the decision of the Brisbane Magistrates’ Court which chose not to proceed with three charges of assault against him and did not record a conviction on two minor charges to which he pleaded guilty.

On the other hand, if the NRL does register Milford, it is effectively admitting it was wrong in barring him from the game and leaving itself open to a potential lawsuit for restraint of trade.

Anthony Milford (pictured playing for the Broncos last year) was reduced to living in a room at his parents' house with his partner after he was effectively barred from playing by the NRL

Anthony Milford (pictured playing for the Broncos last year) was reduced to living in a room at his parents’ house with his partner after he was effectively barred from playing by the NRL

Milford had assault charges against him dropped by the Brisbane Magistrates Court on Monday, but the NRL has launched its own investigation anyway

Milford had assault charges against him dropped by the Brisbane Magistrates Court on Monday, but the NRL has launched its own investigation anyway

Either way, it will be a black eye for the game coming as it does on top of four pitch invasions last weekend which resulted in NRL chairman Peter V’Landys calling on the NSW government to come down harder on what he termed ‘imbeciles’ who disrupt games and put players at risk.

The Milford stand-off is one that members of the legal fraternity have been predicting ever since the then chairman of the ARL Commission Peter Beattie introduced the no-fault stand-down policy in February 2020.

The policy faced unsuccessful legal challenges by the Rugby League Players Association and banned player Jack de Belin, but legal experts believe it is just a matter of time before it is again tested in the courts.

While Milford’s management refused to comment on the possibility of future action as they anxiously await the NRL’s decision, they are known to be furious over the way the player was treated, and the emotional and financial cost he and his family have suffered.

The League had refused to register Milford’s South Sydney contract after he was charged with assault following an incident involving him, his wife and three strangers in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley in September last year.

The former Queensland Origin player (pictured with partner Miri Fa'i) will have a'clear course of action' to take the NRL on in court if he's not allowed to play, a legal expert told Daily Mail Australia

The former Queensland Origin player (pictured with partner Miri Fa’i) will have a ‘clear course of action’ to take the NRL on in court if he’s not allowed to play, a legal expert told Daily Mail Australia 

Incoming Dolphins coach Wayne Bennett has lashed out at the NRL for not immediately allowing Milford to take the field following the dropping of assault charges

Incoming Dolphins coach Wayne Bennett has lashed out at the NRL for not immediately allowing Milford to take the field following the dropping of assault charges

That decision, under the no-fault stand-down policy, cost the former Broncos’ playmaker a reported $175,000.

With the most serious charges dropped and no conviction recorded on the others, it was expected that he would now be allowed to return to the game immediately.

A Sydney journalist’s claim that the NRL would be further investigating the CCTV footage of the incident before making a decision, has intrigued legal experts and angered Milford’s supporters.

A source close to Milford said, ‘The NRL is saying they are bigger than the law of the land. What happened to innocent until proven guilty? Anthony wasn’t found guilty of anything more serious than throwing a wheelie bin that hit a car. He has ‘fessed up to that and will pay compensation but it’s still not enough for the NRL.’

Muddying the waters are reports that the completion of Milford’s contract with South Sydney was delayed prior to the Fortitude Valley incident because of a timing mix-up in the signing of a statutory declaration by Rabbitohs chief executive Blake Solly. However, a legal expert has said that should not have affected the agreement between the club and the player.

The NRL (boss Peter V'Landys, pictured) could be facing a'real issue over possible restraint of trade' when it comes to its actions over Milford's contract, lawyer John Mullins said

The NRL (boss Peter V’Landys, pictured) could be facing a ‘real issue over possible restraint of trade’ when it comes to its actions over Milford’s contract, lawyer John Mullins said 

‘That is a minor issue,’ said Brisbane lawyer John Mullins, an expert in employment law. ‘In a case like this you can have a verbal contract or a handshake agreement. All that is required is offer and acceptance, it’s basic Law 101.

‘The real issue here is over possible restraint of trade and whether the NRL was reasonable in deciding not to register the contract.’

If Milford and his management decide to sue the NRL for the lost wages, it would be the second attempt by a banned player to fight the no-fault stand-down policy as restraint of trade.

The challenge by Dragons forward Jack de Belin, who was stood down after being charged with sexual assault prior to the 2019 season, was dismissed by the Federal Court.

The court found the NRL’s actions reasonable based on a number of points, including the effect of negative publicity and subsequent loss of income that the League and clubs had suffered due to the seriousness of the case.

A layman’s comparison of his case and that of Milford would suggest the two have little in common.

If de Belin had been found guilty of aggravated sexual assault – the most serious of six charges that he faced – he could have been sentenced to a maximum life in prison, obviously making him more than eligible for the no-fault stand-down policy which covers players facing a maximum jail term of 11 years or more.

Milford’s charges of assault occasioning bodily harm carried a maximum jail term of seven years, although his legal team were confident that the CCTV footage would clear him.

It is believed his solicitors commissioned the services of an independent barrister to study the video and her opinion that he had no case to answer was supplied to the NRL nearly two months ago.

Another major difference between the de Belin and Milford cases is that, under the rules of the NRL policy, de Belin continued to be paid his full salary of $595,000 a season by the Dragons while suspended, meaning he received over $1.2 million in the more than two years he spent on the sideline. He was also permitted to train with the team and receive medical and emotional support from Dragons staff.

Jack de Belin (pictured playing for St George Illawarra in round four this year) fought the NRL's no-fault stand-down policy and lost - but another test case could be coming

Jack de Belin (pictured playing for St George Illawarra in round four this year) fought the NRL’s no-fault stand-down policy and lost – but another test case could be coming

Milford, as his contract with the Rabbitohs was never registered, received no pay or support. He has spent the last few months living with his wife and two children in one room of his parents’ house.

It is now up to the NRL to decide what action to take – and how Anthony Milford and his support team will respond.

If he is free to resume his rugby league career it is logical to assume that he will put the past behind him and get on with earning a living as a professional footballer.

And if not, will he be heading for the courts?

As lawyer John Mullins put it, ‘The NRL is always going to do what they believe is best for the game but the fact that their employees are footballers doesn’t mean that employment law doesn’t apply.

‘If the NRL refuses to register his contract again, it would appear there is a clear course of action and that is through the courts.’

Asked if this was the test case to take on the NRL’s no-fault stand-down policy, he answered after a long pause, ‘Probably not, but I do believe one is coming.’

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