‘Reasonable steps’ to prevent gambling

The BBC
reports today
that a compulsive gambler has failed in a High Court bid to make
the bookmaker William Hill repay £2 million of his gambling losses. The gambler, Graham Calvert, claimed that the
bookmaker failed in its ‘duty of care’ by allowing him to continue to place
bets after he had asked the company to close his account. The judge recognised that William Hill failed
to take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent Calvert from gambling, but said that it
was probable that Calvert would have continued to gamble even had such steps
been taken, meaning that William Hill is not responsible for his losses.

Does a
bookmaker have a duty of care towards its customers? The judge in the case thought not, so let us
pose a far more modest question: ought a bookmaker to take ‘reasonable steps’
to prevent its customers from gambling in certain cases? Answering ‘yes’ to the latter question raises
a number of puzzling questions. For
example, what counts as a reasonable step, and under what circumstances ought
such a step to be taken? Consider the
reasons we might believe that pathological gambling is bad: I suggest that
three important reasons are (1) that it is irrational, in that the gambling
behaviour of pathological gamblers is highly unlikely to help realise their goal
of winning money and is highly likely to frustrate this goal; (2) that
pathological gamblers gamble often, and gamble more money than they can afford
to lose; and (3) because of (1) and (2), pathological gamblers are likely to
suffer large financial losses, which can disrupt other aspects of their lives,
such as their personal relationships, health, and career. 

These three
points are not irrelevant to cases of what we might call non-pathological gambling,
however. First, much non-pathological
gambling is irrational, in that it is unlikely to help achieve the gambler’s
goal of winning money. How ‘irrational’
might be properly interpreted here is open to debate, but on many plausible
accounts, a person acts irrationally even when their only gambling activity
involves purchasing a £1 lottery ticket once a week, when their chances of
winning the (< £14 million) jackpot are 14 million to one and their goal is
to win the jackpot, and when they are aware of (approximately) what are their
chances of winning. People who behave in
this way suffer from what psychologists term ‘probability neglect’: they focus
on the desired outcome and fail to attend to the chances of achieving that
outcome. Despite the fact that a person
whose only gambling activity involves spending £1 on a lottery ticket every
week acts irrationally, however, few of us would expect the lottery operator to
take ‘reasonable steps’ to curtail such spending beyond providing information
about how the lottery works and what are the chances of winning a prize. Neither, I suggest, would we expect the
lottery operator to intervene if someone purchased lottery tickets much more
often than this: many people buy several tickets for each National Lottery
draw. It is likely that one reason we do
not view the behaviour of such people as problematic is that their financial
investment in the lottery is quite small. At worst, many of us might view buying several lottery tickets per week
as a relatively harmless waste of time. However,
in cases where people invest a lot of money in gambling—more than they could
afford to lose—we are more likely to view the gambling behaviour as problematic,
and perhaps it is in these cases where we might expect a bookmaker or lottery
operator to take some sort of steps to curtail gambling. However, a person may gamble more money than
they could afford to lose, and yet do so without acting irrationally or being
deluded or misinformed: on many plausible accounts of rationality, the size of
a stake, the size of the prize, and the chance of winning the prize can be such
that it is not irrational to gamble more than one could afford to lose. In such cases, it is difficult to see how
there could be such a thing as a ‘reasonable step’ that a bookmaker might take
to prevent the gambler from placing their bet.  We might even think that people should be
permitted irrationally to gamble more than they could afford to lose, provided
that the bookmaker does not mislead them about the gambling process.  Given these ruminations, it is difficult to
see what general considerations might govern when a bookmaker should take ‘reasonable
steps’ to prevent a customer from placing a bet, and what these steps should
be.  These difficulties should not,
perhaps, be surprising given that the gambling business is, even in many of its
most innocuous forms, an industry that trades on irrationality and risk-taking.

In the
specific case of Mr Calvert, however, the issue is more clear-cut: William Hill
failed to respond to his request to close his account.  Whatever ‘reasonable steps’ might generally be
taken to mean in the context of gambling, it was not reasonable of the
bookmaker to ignore Calvert’s request.  The
consequences of the bookmaker’s failure to respond to Calvert’s request are, in
addition, far more serious than the likely consequences of many other imaginable
cases in which a company fails to respond to a customer request.  We might, then, think that it is particularly
important for bookmakers to respond to customer requests, especially when these
requests embody attempts by customers to curtail their own gambling, and
especially when the problems of pathological gambling are well-known.  

If we are
concerned that gamblers warrant special treatment, however, it is naïve to
expect bookmakers themselves to enforce it. Since their profits suffer when their customers stop gambling, the
conflict of interests is obvious.  More
sensible would be to set up an independent organisation to ensure that gamblers’
attempts to curtail their gambling by restricting their bookmaker accounts are
not ignored by the bookmakers, or to introduce legislation to ensure a minimal
level of responsiveness by bookmakers.  Generally
speaking, however, it is perhaps sensible to recognise that one drawback of
living in a liberal society in which people are free to decide the course of
their own lives is that, occasionally, people are likely to make very bad
choices.  And, whilst those people might,
in some circumstances, prefer to be prevented from making such choices, implementing
societal mechanisms that attempt to prevent bad choices risks curtailing the
freedom of those who neither need nor welcome such intervention.

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