Business

Proposed licensing reforms offer some solace to drinks trade

Pubs will be able to serve alcohol until 2am under relaxed licensing laws in Northern Ireland
Kirsty Mairs

THE hospitality sector has been profoundly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and due to the closures and restrictions in 2020, many restaurants and public houses will be facing significant financial challenges in 2021.

Earlier this year the Executive announced plans to reform the Northern Ireland liquor licensing laws, which are currently governed by the Licensing (NI) Order 1996. The result is the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill which was introduced to the Assembly in July.

The Department for Communities has described the changes proposed by the Bill as a balanced package of measures aimed at tackling alcohol misuse, promoting responsible consumption, and providing support for the hospitality industry and tourism. It is something that can only be welcomed by the hospitality sector during such trying times.

Among the key proposed changes contained in the Bill are changes to the permitted hours for the sale of alcohol, the Easter trading arrangements, and the sale of alcohol at special events.

Under the current laws, the normal opening hours for licensed premises are 11.30am-11.00pm Monday to Friday and 12.30pm to 10pm on a Sunday. Public houses and other premises, which provide either food or entertainment may trade up to 1am Monday to Saturday and to 12 midnight on a Sunday with the Court's consent.

In recognition of the importance of the hospitality and tourism sectors, the proposed changes provide for the introduction of occasional additional late opening hours which will allow certain licensed premises to serve alcohol until 2am up to 104 times a year.

For those smaller premises which are not able to provide food or entertainment, that figure is reduced to up to 85 a year. The proposals also include an extension of the current "drinking up time" from 30 minutes to an hour to allow for a gradual departure from licensed premises.

In terms of Easter opening times, where current law states that late opening on the Thursday and Saturday before Easter Sunday must end at midnight and on-sales are only permitted to sell alcoholic drinks between 5pm and 11pm on Good Friday, the Bill proposes to abolish the restrictive opening hours to become in the same as the rest of the calendar year. This is in response to the growing importance of the tourism industry for Northern Ireland.

Further, the proposals include a new category of licence to include local breweries, cideries and distillers, which at present, are not included under the current licensing law and are therefore only entitled to sell directly to the public if they have a pub or off sales licence.

This change will enable local drinks producers to sell their products directly to the public in limited circumstances and will allow local producers to sample free of charge during any tour of breweries, cideries or distilleries.

The Department will also, if the Bill becomes law, be able to designate special or major events which will permit the variation of the permitted hours and allow certain off-sales at events.

The introduction of this Bill can only be met with support from the hospitality industry given it reflects a long-awaited proposed modernisation of the liquor licensing legislation in Northern Ireland at a time when the industry is experiencing unimaginable pressures.

It remains to be seen whether proposed legislative changes will come into force in 2021 and if so the impact of any proposed reforms for the hospitality and tourism sector.

:: Kirsty Mairs (kirsty.mairs@dwf.law) is partner/head of hospitality at DWF Belfast (www.dwf.law)

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