Last Orders – Where to Next?

With Easter 2016 now behind us, many will have noted the now annual outcry regarding Northern Ireland’s liquor licensing laws in the local press and media. Alcohol can only be served between 5pm and 11pm on Good Friday, pubs are required to stop serving alcohol at midnight on Thursday and Saturday, and on Easter Sunday alcohol may not be served by bars and restaurants after 10pm.

This year has seen increased media and press coverage of criticism levied at the current licensing legislation by publicans and industry bodies. This criticism is being voiced in frustration at the Northern Ireland Assembly’s failure to modernise the legislation despite a public consultation on the matter in 2012.

The Department for Social Development (DSD) which has responsibility for alcohol licensing launched a public consultation in 2012 to which more than 2,500 people responded. One of the proposals of the consultation was to permit late opening hours on Thursday/Saturday before Easter Sunday. This proposal was met with very strong agreement – 83% of respondents agreed/strongly agreed and only 9% disagreed/strongly disagreed. The Consultation Outcome Report published by DSD in December 2013 noted:

“Comments provided indicated very strong support for late opening hours on these days and two dominant themes emerged from the responses. Firstly, the vast majority of responses stated that religious beliefs should remain separate from legislation. It was felt that there was little justification for different opening hours to pertain to these particular days. Secondly, it was felt that it was evident that the economy and tourism industries would benefit from increased trading on these days. Indeed some of the respondents felt that the proposed changes do not go far enough and that the whole issue of Easter trading needs to be addressed to enable businesses to have the ability to maximise their potential over this period.”

Despite the ‘dominant themes’ identified in responses to the proposal, Easter was subsequently described by DSD in a document setting out the key features of a proposed Liquor Licensing Amendment Bill as “a period of special significance in Northern Ireland which is reflected in licensing law by the placing of restrictions on the opening hours for licensed premises over this period”.

Following publication of the Consultation Outcome Report, the then Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland said:

“Many of those who responded to the public consultation argued that the law in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the law in England and Wales where there are fewer restrictions on the sale of alcohol……..I do not believe it is sensible to go down that road”.

Minister McCausland did however decide that the law should be changed to permit extended opening by one hour on the Thursday and Saturday before Easter Sunday, but there would be no changes to the current laws restricting the sale of alcohol on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

The changes were to be included in a Bill to be taken through the legislative process in the Northern Ireland Assembly before becoming law. However, DSD failed to bring forward a Liquor Licensing Amendment Bill during the current assembly mandate which ended on 30 March 2016 blaming “competing priorities, such as welfare reform and the housing bills [which means] the current minister no longer has time to progress a bill in the current mandate”. Any changes to liquor licensing law will now fall to the new Department for Communities to consider after 5th May’s assembly election.

The question now arises, will the new Department press on with the limited reform which has been proposed by DSD or will mounting pressure from the general public and the hospitality sector encourage more extensive reforms? Without this pressure throughout the year, perhaps the status quo will be allowed to prevail and the annual outcry will be heard once again at Easter 2017.

While great care has been taken in the preparation of the content of this article, it does not purport to be a comprehensive statement of the relevant law and full professional advice should be taken before any action is taken in reliance on any item covered.