Irish Online Gambling Laws

Angie  Harper - EditorAngie Harper - 28 June 2020 in Features
Irish Online Gambling Laws

Ireland’s current laws regarding online gambling are based on a combination of laws from decades ago to only a few years ago. There is change in the air and an expected reform of all the gambling laws in the country. We explain the current status of different forms of online gambling in Ireland, outline the steps leading to the proposed legislation and point out what the future hold for Irish online gamblers.

What you will find below:

  • From 1995 To 2015: Unregulated Online Gambling
  • From 2015 To 2019: A Small Step In Online Gambling Regulation
  • Gaming And Lotteries (Amendment) Act 2019
  • The Future Of Online Gambling In Ireland
  • Frequently Asked Questions

From 1995 To 2015: Unregulated Online Gambling

The Early Years

Online casinos came into existence around 1995 when secure mechanisms to receive and remit payments were integrated into casino gaming software. Any player anywhere in the world could sign up at any online casino operating from a server in Malta or Gibraltar or other such offshore locations. The success of online casinos led to the development of other online gambling verticals like poker, bingo and sports betting.

Land casinos had been banned under the Gaming and Lotteries Acts 1956, though some gambling activity took place at a few private clubs. Being able to play blackjack and roulette and other such games online was more than welcome.

Two forms of gambling had been allowed in Ireland at that point:

  • The prohibition on slot machines originally contained under Section 10 of the Gaming and Lotteries Act was repealed in 1970.
  • Betting on horse racing and sports was allowed through local licensed betting shops and counters at racing tracks.
  • Online gambling portals enabled Irish punters to engage in these activities from their homes, which was a huge advantage.

Regulation in Other Countries

Initially national governments were caught unawares because all it took to gamble online was a decent Internet connection and a credit card. Casino providers operated from remote locations with no assets or presence in the player’s country.

While in the beginning there was no regulation of online gambling, governments were gradually forced to think about controlling online gambling for two reasons:

  • Social and religious organisations took umbrage to the ease at which people could gamble online without any regulation. According to them, it was the recipe for compulsive gambling problems like indebtedness, family disruptions, depressions and more. Their clamour could no longer be swept under the carpet.
  • Fees and taxes from online gambling revenues were accruing to offshore regulators and not going to national coffers. These had become substantial and were predicted to grow exponentially. The cash-strapped governments needed those funds.

The United Kingdom was one of the first countries to come out with comprehensive online gambling regulation laws through The Gambling Act 2005. Ireland waited until 2015 and even then it was a minor step.

From 2015 To 2019: A Small Step In Online Gambling Regulation

Gambling Laws in Ireland

Gambling in Ireland is regulated under a number of different laws for different products.

  • Betting Acts 1931 to 2015.
  • Gaming and Lotteries Acts 1956 to 2013.
  • Totalisator Act 1929 (as amended).
  • National Lottery Act 2013.

The first two acts are relevant to online casinos, poker rooms and sportsbooks. It is evident that Irish laws treat betting (including horse racing and sports) and gaming (including casinos, poker and slot machines) as separate activities and therefore they need to be treated separately for the purpose of this analysis.

Current Betting Laws in Ireland

Reference to online betting was first introduced in the Betting Act in the Amendment of 2015. Certain pertinent definitions, carried forward or amended or introduced in 2015, constitute the starting point of the discussion. These appear in Section 1 of the Principal Act of 1931.

  • Bookmaker: A person, who in the course of business, takes bets, sets odds and undertakes to pay out on winning bets.
  • Remote Bookmaker: A person who carries on the business of bookmaker by remote means.
  • Remote Betting Intermediary: A person who, in the course of business, provides facilities that enable persons to make bets with other persons by remote means;
  • Remote Means: Any electronic means, including (a) the Internet (b) telephone and (c) telegraphy (whether or not wireless telegraphy)

In an article titled Gaming in Ireland: Overview Messrs. Corbet, McCarthy and Stafford point out that the word “bet” is not rigidly defined in the Act. The definition of bet and cognate words has been established by a relatively small body of case law, and is not different from the commonly understood meaning of the words.

As per the Act, all bookmakers and betting intermediaries, whether engaged in land-based or remote operations, are required to obtain a licence in the prescribed manner. Prior to April 15, 2015, the date of commencement of the Betting (Amendment) Act 2015, all online sportsbooks were in fact operating outside the law. Since the Act came into effect the remote bookmakers that obtained Irish licences are within the law and those that serve Irish residents without an Irish licence are basically illegal.

Application of Remote Betting Licence

Prospective remote bookmakers must first apply for a certificate of personal fitness. Those based in Ireland will obtain this from a member of An Garda Síochána not below the rank of Superintendent. Applicants not based in Ireland will get the certificate of personal fitness from the Department of Justice and Equality. Section 6 of the Betting Act lays down the eligibility criteria as under.

  • Financial well-being
  • No history of betting offences or defaults

On receipt of the certificate, the applicant must make an application (with a tax clearance certificate and licence fee) for a bookmaker's licence to the Revenue Commissioner. The process is expected to take between six and ten weeks, assuming that there are no complications. The law does not limit the number of licences that can be issued, but the Revenue Commissioner is authorised to place a cap on the number awarded.

The initial licence fee for remote bookmakers is €10,000. The validity of the licence is two years. The cost of renewing a remote licence is based on turnover and ranges from €10,000 (minimum) up to a maximum of €200,000 for bookmakers with an annual turnover of over €500 million.

According to Messrs. Corbet et al, the focus of the Irish online betting regime is to tax operators who are targeting Irish customers. The present rate of tax is 2% of the stake wagered. The Act is a bit fuzzy on what the online bookmakers can and cannot do.

Some important steps to protect consumers have been included in the Act, such as:

  • ISPs have been prohibited from enabling unlicensed remote bookmakers from accessing or using a particular internet address or domain under Section 32A.
  • Section 20 lists what types of advertisements and information are prohibited. The objective is to disallow luring prospective clients by making outlandish promises.
  • Unlicensed bookmakers, though illegal in themselves, are further prohibited from engaging in any form of advertising.

The Revenue Commissioner is the designated authority to take action against violators of these rules by filing charges in the district courts. However, the level of compliance and enforcement is poor.

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Current Gaming Laws in Ireland

The Gaming and Lotteries Act 1956 has been amended several times. The most recent amendment of 2019 has yet to be implemented, but in any event it does not address online gambling. The current gaming laws do not refer to online or remote operations unlike the current betting laws. However, the forms of gaming that are generally illegal can be deemed to be illegal if conducted online as well.

In Section 2 of the Gaming and Lotteries Act, “gaming” is defined as playing a game (whether of skill, chance or partly of skill and partly of chance) for stakes hazarded by the players. “Stake” is defined in a bit of roundabout manner, but ultimately the meaning is the same as the common sense meaning of the word. Under the Gaming and Lotteries Act, gaming is prohibited, unless it falls under the stated exemptions.

Before taking the discussion further, it is important to get the two trivial exceptions out of the way.

  • The first exception is when gaming takes place in circuses, travelling shows or carnivals, provided that certain conditions are complied with.
  • The second exception is where the chances of all players including the banker are equal and no stakes are retained by the banker.

Though the usual casino games like roulette, blackjack, baccarat and poker are not referred to by name in that Act, it is evident from the above discussion that they are illegal as played in land based or online casinos. Playing blackjack involves both skill and chance and players hazard a bet so it falls under gaming. The odds are such that the banker (or casino) indirectly retains a stake through a house edge, so the second exemption does not apply.

The definition of gaming in the Irish laws is markedly different from the laws of most other countries in one respect. Even if the activity has zero element of luck and is 100% skill based, it would still fall under gaming provided a bet was involved. In USA, for example, the Poker Players Alliance has for long been on a mission to remover poker, including online poker, from the ambit of gambling by explaining it as a game of skill. This would not work under Irish laws.

The net result of this discussion is to demonstrate that online casinos with games like roulette and blackjack and online poker rooms are currently illegal in Ireland.

Video slots constitute a major segment of online gambling, and in Ireland, land based slot machines are treated differently from other casino games. Therefore a clarification is in order. In the earlier versions of the Gaming and Lotteries Act slot machines were prohibited under Section 10. This section was repealed in 1970. However, the law requires that a person who makes a gaming machine available for play must have a gaming machine licence for each machine. Since no licences have been issued for operators to offer online slots, casinos that are doing so are illegal.

Licensed Sports Betting Sites

The sportsbooks that have obtained Irish licences are legal. The Revenue Department lists over 60 licenced entities as on June 3, 2020 in its Register of Licensed Remote Bookmaking Operations. These include some of the most well-known names in the industry that also hold licenses from jurisdictions like the United Kingdom, Malta and Gibraltar. Some examples include 888, Betfair and 32Red.

Those bookmakers that are licenced only at offshore locations, or in the worst case not licensed at all, operate illegally according to Irish laws. All online casinos, whatever products they offer, and all online poker rooms, are illegal for Irish customers because no licences have been issued. The illegality follows from an interpretation of the statutes as reasoned out earlier in the article. It has not been tested in Irish courts and nor has the Irish government taken any action against them.

Legal or otherwise, Irish punters have access to an abundance of online sportsbooks and casinos. It is very common for operators that are licensed overseas (for example, in the Isle of Man, Alderney, Malta or Gibraltar) to provide gaming services to Irish consumers.

Irrespective of their legal status, online gambling operators not holding Irish licenses but servicing Irish customers could have their Irish revenues subject to value added tax (VAT) under Directive 2006/112/EC and its implementing regulations (282/2011/EU). These services are taxable in Ireland at a rate of 23% on a point of consumption basis.

No illegality has been attributed and no punishment has been specified for Irish players that sign up and place bets with illegal online gambling sites.

For clarification:

  • In the Betting Act, Section 4 deals with Prohibitions. The only persons that are guilty of offences are persons other than licensed bookmakers or betting intermediaries that engage in providing betting or remote betting services.
  • In the Gaming and Lotteries Act, Section 4 deals with Unlawful Gaming. Again the only persons guilty of unlawful gaming are persons that promote or assist in promoting or provide facilities for any kind of unlawful gaming. Since players do not fall under these categories they are not engaging in unlawful activities.

Though it is absolutely clear that under current laws players cannot be punished for playing at online gambling sites not licenced in Ireland, it does not mean that they are not taking any kind of risk by doing so. The law allows the enforcement authority to block access to the offshore online gambling sites. This enabling provision of the law has not been put into practice so far, but theoretically it can happen at any time. In that event players may lose funds lying at those sites because without access to the site there may be no mechanism available to initiate the refund.

The recommended course of action is as follows:

  • There are excellent sports betting sites licensed by the Irish authorities and there should not be any need to go elsewhere.
  • Irish residents wanting to play casino games or poker online have no choice but to go to sites not licenced by the Irish authorities. They should keep their funds exposure as low as possible as a precautionary measure.

Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Act 2019

Background to The Act

As far back as 2011, the Irish government realised the need to modernise the laws related to gambling. The piecemeal amendments to the different acts were preventing a new and holistic approach to the issue. In 2013, the Government published the General Scheme for a Gambling Control Bill 2013 (2013 Scheme) that was to replace all the existing acts with a single comprehensive piece of legislation. An Inter-Departmental Parliamentary Working Group was established to review this Scheme and to assist in the development of a licensing and regulatory system for gambling.

When there was no visible progress for long, the opposition introduced its version of a Gambling Control Bill in 2018 with the intent to fast track the process. The Working Group published its report in March 2019, which was accepted by the government.

Responding to questions in Parliament, the then Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality replied:

“This is a complex area and we must be certain that any reforms will be achievable and effective. At the time of publication of this Report, the Taoiseach indicated that work on a revised General Scheme of a Gambling Control Bill, taking account of the Working Group’s recommendations, would likely take a period of about 18 months to bring to completion.”

The Minister also categorically stated that online gambling would be covered.

In the end the Government decided to buy more time and amended the Gaming and Lotteries Act as an interim measure. The Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill 2019 was signed into law by the President on December 21, 2019.

Contents of the Amended Act

Despite the Minister’s assurance, online gambling was not specifically included in the amended act. The changes that were sought to be made are highlighted below.

  • A standardised minimum age of 18 for betting and gaming.
  • Updated offences provisions.
  • Tinkering with bet and prize limits.
  • Detailed processes for gaming licences.
  • Changes in the Betting Act.

Online gamers had pinned their hopes on the creation of a favourable environment through legislative changes and were disappointed. On February 11, 2020, Global Betting & Gaming Consultants trashed the Act in a story on their website with the title Irish Amendment Act Pleases No-one.

The Future of Online Gambling in Ireland

With nothing in it for them, it will make no difference to online players how soon the Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Act 2019 is implemented. They have to wait for the completely new Gambling Control Bill, based on the recommendations in the report of the Inter-Departmental Parliamentary Working Group on Future Licencing and Regulation of Gambling. Some of the important suggestions of the Group are highlighted below, particularly with reference to online gambling.

  • Online gambling is to be separate licence category along with betting, lotteries, gaming machines, bingo and casino.
  • An independent regulatory authority is to be established, like the United Kingdom Gambling Commission, to oversee all offline and online gambling activities in Ireland.

The Regulator would have the following significant responsibilities:

  • Be in charge of the total licencing regime creating a single window for applicants and licensees.
  • Ensure the protection of consumers, children and vulnerable persons.
  • Implement an alternative dispute resolution mechanism.
  • Establish a fund to raise awareness and provide support for the treatment of gambling addiction.
  • Lay down special conditions required for online gambling licenses given that most of the operators would be based outside Ireland.

In May 2019, the Minister for Justice and Equality had indicated a time frame of 18 months for the establishment of the new gambling control regime. Based on that, it is expected that the new legislation would be enacted by the end of 2020. If one wants a more prudent estimate, because there are unforeseen delays in passing legislation (such as the prevailing pandemic), then the target date could be sometime in 2021.

After that Irish players can expect a safer online gambling environment. As Irish customers move their patronage to Irish licensed sites, others will be forced to fall in line and apply for licenses. Soon the best online betting and gambling providers will be offering their products and services in Ireland.

Until then the situation described earlier will continue. Given the government’s intent to create a local online gambling environment, it is unlikely to stop players from using offshore sites in the interim period.


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Frequently Asked Questions

  • Online betting sites that have been licensed by Irish authorities operate in a perfectly legal manner. These include some renowned online sportsbooks like Betfair, 888 (Ireland), BetVictor and 32Red.
  • Online betting sites operating without an Irish licence are unlawful under Irish law, but some of them have been servicing Irish punters for over two decades without any problem.
  • Offering casino gambling, both land based and online, is illegal under Irish law, so the offshore online casinos are operating unlawfully, but again without any action being taken against them by the Irish authorities.

No, they are under no threat of any sort of criminal action by the Irish authorities. The Irish law, both betting and gaming, is clear that providing these services without a licence is illegal. The acts do not attribute any offence to and do not impose any punishment on players that participate at these sites.

No. Criminal liability and safety are two different issues. You do run certain risks while betting at the unlawfully operating gambling sites that you will not at the Irish licensed gambling sites.

  • Irish law permits preventing access to the offshore gambling sites that are operating unlawfully through ISP blocking or any other feasible means. While this seems unlikely to happen in the prevailing situation, it is a possibility that cannot be ruled out. If this should happen then your funds at those sites can be held up for a very long time and can even be lost completely in the worst case.
  • Again, this is an extreme possibility, but you may end up with a dispute with the offshore gambling site not licensed in Ireland even after going through the resolution mechanisms available. You should keep in mind that you have no recourse under Irish law in the sense that you cannot file any legal action against that site in Ireland. For sites licensed in Ireland this last recourse is always available.
  • Excellent online sportsbooks licensed in Ireland are available and it is best that you stick to these.
  • If you want to play at offshore online casinos, make sure that they hold licences from reputed jurisdictions like Malta, Gibraltar or Alderney. They have reasonable and credible dispute resolution mechanisms. Never gamble at unlicensed sites.
  • Keep your deposits and winnings at the online gambling sites to a bare minimum. Though inconvenient, it is safer to make frequent deposits rather than keep large funds at these online casinos.

The Irish legislature has been working to revamp the gambling control system completely for a few years now. A committee formed by the government submitted detailed recommendations, including for online gambling, in March 2019. The government is drafting a comprehensive Gambling Control Bill based on these recommendations. It is expected that the bill will be ready by the end of 2020 or early in 2021. There seems to be broad agreement on the contours of the bill and its passage through Parliament should not pose a problem.

  • In the United Kingdom and other European countries that have implemented a national licensing and regulation regime, it has been seen that the best online gambling operators have obtained licences. It can therefore be expected that in Ireland as well the leading operators will come on board and offer Ireland specific products and services. In short, players should get a wider range of high quality casino games.
  • The regulatory mechanism will be stricter and players’ interests will be completely protected. Players will see greater transparency in display of information at websites, fairer bonus offers and quicker payout of winnings. One of the suggestions by the committee has been to keep players’ funds in a separate account so that they are always available for withdrawal.
  • The online gambling providers will have to take steps to minimise, if not prevent, the incidence of problem gambling. There will be controls on bonus offers and advertising, greater dissemination of information on problem gambling and provision of responsible gambling facilities. A part of the fees and taxes collected will go into research and treatment of compulsive gambling.
  • Irish players will have recourse to Irish law, though the need of taking any online gambling site to court will be very low.
 

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