Austrian poker players and operators alike emitted a collective sigh of relief upon hearing last week’s gambling news.
In a reasuring turn of events, the Constitutional Court has declared on Friday that poker regulations contained in the Austrian gambling laws were unconstitutional.
The Chief Justice objected specifically to the licensing provisions, including government plans to issue a single Austrian poker room license for the country, as well as their incomplete state. The ruling resulted in the suspension of the whole chapter relating to poker.
This legal defeat for the Ministry of Finance creates a legal limbo for the near future. “We have noted the decision of the Constitutional Court,” commented a ministry spokeswoman, adding that the ruling must be thoroughly analyzed. “Then we will see what further action is needed.”
The court’s decision of repelling the regulations also means that poker is no longer considered gambling in Austria. It was only the Gambling Act of 2010 that explicitly placed the game into that category: prior to it card casinos could be opened freely.
The new law made it a government monopoly, relegating it to casinos. Because the government has not been able to draw up all the new licensing procedures on time, poker parlors became technically illegal at the end of 2012, when the transitional period, during which they were supposed to apply for the new license, expired.
That can not be allowed – this was the opinion of the Constitutional Court, as it scrapped the whole set of new regulations, to the rejoicing of casino operators. “It is a day of great joy. Belief in the rule of law has been affirmed,” said Peter Zanoni, head of Concord Card Casinos.
Many operators had condemned the new law – drawn up after sustained criticism from the EU – claiming that licensing conditions were tailored to provide former monopoly operator Casinos Austria an unfair advantage.
Experts believe the Ministry of Finance has two options. It either does nothing and lets the old legislation enter into force again, thereby re-liberalizing the poker market. Or, it can declare poker as gambling – this option has been left open by the Constitutional Court – and re-regulate the whole concession matter.
The latter option would probably require a new amendment to the Gambling Act.
Zanoni also perceives a third option: the Ministry could simply regulate poker outside the Gambling Act, applying existing trade regulations. “You could make it a bonded or concessionary trade,” suggested the executive.