Proposed changes to liquor licensing laws in Northern Ireland

A consultation entitled “Liquor Licensing Laws in Northern Ireland” took place between 14 October and 6 December 2019 and Minister Ní Chuilín has announced the proposals to be taken forward. They will be included in a Bill which will be taken through the legislative process in the Northern Ireland Assembly before becoming Law, at which stage it will become an Act.

Purpose and Key Features of the Bill

The main purpose of this Bill is to introduce a balanced package of measures aimed at tackling alcohol misuse and promoting responsible consumption, alongside measures which will provide vital support for the hospitality industry, and assist it in supporting tourism.

The key features of the Bill are set out in detail below:

Easter opening hours

Under the current law late opening (from 11.00pm – 1.00am in pubs and other premises which provide food/entertainment) on the Thursday and Saturday before Easter Sunday must end at midnight.  On-sales premises are only permitted to sell alcoholic drinks between 5.00pm – 11.00pm on Good Friday. 

Changing social habits and the growing importance of the tourism industry for Northern Ireland has led to calls for changes to Easter opening hours.  It is proposed to remove all restrictions over the Easter weekend.

Additional permitted hours for certain licensed premises

Under the current law, the normal opening hours for licensed premises are 11.30am – 11.00pm on weekdays, 12.30pm – 10.00pm on Sunday or Christmas Day and 5.00pm – 11pm on Good Friday.  Certain licensed premises may apply to a court for late opening hours to allow them to open to 1.00am on weekdays and 12.00am on Sundays with 30 minutes drinking up time.  A court must be satisfied that conditions have been met, such as, that food or entertainment will continue to be provided during late opening.

In recognition of the importance of the hospitality and tourism sectors to the local economy, it is proposed that courts may grant an additional 1 hour late opening up to 104 times per year in certain licensed premises, under certain conditions.

Additional permitted hours for smaller pubs 

Under the current, law smaller pubs, which are not in a position to provide food and/or entertainment, may not be granted late opening hours by the courts. However, it is possible for the police to authorise late opening in such premises for a maximum of 20 occasions in any year.  This allows such premises to sell alcoholic drinks to 1.00am on weekdays and 12.00 midnight on Sunday with 30 minutes drinking up time.

It is proposed that the number of occasions for late opening in small pubs will be increased to 85 per year.  This recognises the role small pubs play in local communities, where they are often seen as the social hub, and mirrors the number of late opening hours the police may authorise for registered clubs.

Drinking up time

The current law provides that alcoholic drinks may be consumed for a period of 30 minutes after the end of the permitted hours for selling alcohol, commonly known as ‘drinking-up’ time.

It is proposed to extend the current drinking up time in all licensed premises and private members’ clubs from 30 minutes to 1 hour to discourage customers drinking too quickly and to allow more gradual departure especially from large venues. 

Alignment of alcohol and entertainment licences

The granting of an alcohol licence is a matter for the Courts. If any premises apply to the Court for late opening hours they have to present an entertainment licence, which local Councils are responsible for issuing.  As entertainment licences may be granted beyond the late opening hours available under an alcohol licence, this has led to illegal sales of alcoholic drinks and an increase in drug use.

It is proposed that the law will be amended to provide that any grant of late opening hours or the proposed occasional additional opening hour will require that an associated entertainment licence will not extend beyond the latest time alcoholic drinks can be consumed in licensed premises. It is intended that this proposal, which would prohibit entertainment licences from being granted beyond the permitted drinking hours, will help to offset the issues associated with problem premises.

Children’s Certificates

Under the current law young people under 18 are not allowed in the bar area of any licensed premises or private members’ club at any time when alcoholic drinks may be sold unless that premises has been granted a children’s certificate. The children’s certificate allows young people to be present in the bar area to 9pm provided conditions are met, such as, they must be in the company of an adult.

It is proposed that the requirement for a licensed premises to hold a children’s certificate if they wish to allow young people under 18 on their premises to 9pm will be removed.  It is intended however that the conditions pertaining to the presence of young people in licensed premises will remain.  This proposal aims to reduce some of the bureaucracy from the legislation.

Underage functions

Current legislation prohibits young people under 18 from being in any part of a licensed premise that contains a bar; or in any part of the licensed premise which is used exclusively or mainly for the consumption of alcohol.  The only exception is where a children’s certificate is in force which allows young people to be on the premises until 9pm.  License holders, particularly in the current economic climate, are keen to allow their function rooms to be used for functions attended by young people.

It is proposed that the current law is changed to allow young people under 18 to be in the bar area of licensed premises and registered clubs after 9pm provided no alcoholic drinks are available. 

Restrictions on the advertising of alcoholic drinks in supermarkets and other off sales premises

The current law is silent on the advertising of alcoholic drinks by supermarkets and off sales premises.  The proposed restrictions are to:

  • prohibit advertising of alcoholic drinks within the vicinity of the premises; and
  • restrict advertising materials relating primarily to alcohol products to the licensed area of supermarkets.

These restrictions are intended to prevent supermarkets and off sales premises advertising alcoholic drinks offers anywhere other than within the licensed area of their premises.  They are also intended to encourage shoppers to make a conscious decision about whether or not to purchase alcohol.  The evidence base shows that alcohol advertising has a significant effect on alcohol consumption.

Delivery of alcoholic drinks to young people

While there are some safeguards in the current law in relation to the delivery of alcoholic drinks, there have been ongoing concerns that this law is not sufficiently robust in ensuring that young people under-18 are unable to avail of home deliveries of alcohol.

It is now proposed to strengthen the current law to prevent young people under-18 from receiving a delivery of alcoholic drinks and to place a requirement in law for identification to be shown and recorded upon delivery if there is any doubt that the person to whom the drink is delivered is not 18 years of age or over.

Restaurants and guest houses

Under the current law the sale of alcoholic drinks in a licensed restaurant is subject to certain conditions, for example, drink must be consumed as ancillary to a main table meal.  Licensed restaurants may not charge an admission or entrance fee to the premises. 

It is intended that regulations will be introduced requiring licensed restaurants to display a notice setting out the conditions for the sale of alcoholic drinks and creating an offence for non-compliance with this requirement.

Self-Service and Vending Machines

Recent Self-Service innovations and vending machines provide easier access to alcoholic drinks and may encourage underage and/or excessive drinking and have given rise to concerns surrounding enforcement.

It is proposed to amend the law to prevent the sale of alcoholic drinks via self-service means and vending machines.

Codes of practice

The current law is silent on the use of codes of practice.  The use of such codes has been identified as a more flexible approach than the introduction of legislation.

It is proposed to amend the law to allow statutory approval for voluntary industry-led codes of practice in relation to the sale and promotion of alcoholic drinks in licensed premises and registered clubs.  It is intended that knowledge of and adherence to such a code would affect the grant and/or renewal of a licence/registration.

Extension of premises in sporting clubs

Under the current Clubs law, it is not lawful for a club to supply alcoholic drinks to its members and their guests anywhere other than within the physical registered Club premises.  When a club has an occasional event in their grounds, alcoholic drinks can only be supplied by means of an occasional licence, which is granted to either a pub, hotel or restaurant licence holder.

It is proposed to amend the law to allow a sporting club to extend the area of their premises within which they can lawfully supply alcoholic drinks on a limited number of occasions (6) per year. 

Young people in sporting clubs until 11pm during the summer

Current law provides that young people under 18 may be allowed in the bar area of a sporting club until 10pm in the evening.  Clubs often hold awards ceremonies to celebrate sporting achievements which are often held in the evening and include presentations to children.

In recognition of the diversionary activities offered to young people by clubs over the summer months, it is proposed to amend the law to permit young people under 18 to be present in sporting clubs until 11pm from 1 June – 31 August.

It is further proposed to amend the law to permit young people under 18 to attend an awards ceremony in a sporting club 1 night per calendar year and remain on the premises until 11pm.

Restrictions on advertisements for functions held in Private Member Clubs’ premises

The current law places restrictions on how registered clubs may advertise functions on club premises.  Only functions which involve a sport, game or physical recreation may be advertised in the media.  Advertising of all other functions is restricted to the club premises.

Clubs law will be amended to remove the current restriction on the advertising of functions in clubs provided the advertisement makes it clear that it is for members and their guests only.

Repeal of the duty exemption for Angostura Bitters

Under the current law Angostura Bitters are exempt from the definition of “intoxicating liquor” in licensing law.  This was due to their exemption from excise duty.  From April 2013 HMRC has removed this duty exemption and Angostura Bitters are now liable to excise duty.  It is now intended to bring into line the duty and licensing regimes for Angostura Bitters.

It is proposed that the law will be amended to provide that Angostura Bitters will no longer be excluded from the definition of intoxicating liquor in licensing law.  This will result in Angostura Bitters only being sold in licensed premises.

Categories of licence

Under current licensing law, liquor licences can be granted to 12 categories of premises, not including local breweries, cideries and distilleries.  Local producers of alcoholic drinks therefore are only permitted to sell their produce directly to the public if they obtain a pub, off-licence or restaurant licence.  Those unable to do so rely on third parties which impacts heavily on their profits and cash flow.

To support the growth of these businesses, and in recognition of their contribution to the food and drink culture and tourism, it is proposed that a new category of premises is introduced for local breweries, cideries and distilleries.

Place of public entertainment

Under current licensing law, a place of public entertainment is a category which may be granted a liquor licence.  The category includes a theatre, ballroom and a race track licensed under the Betting, Gaming, lotteries and Amusements (NI) Order 1985.

A Sunday is not included in the permitted hours for a place of public entertainment, except for a Theatre. 

At the time liquor licensing legislation was enacted, betting at race tracks was not permitted on Sundays.  The Betting and Gaming (NI) Order 2004 then permitted on-course betting.

In recognition of on-course betting being permitted on a Sunday, it is proposed to include Sunday in the permitted hours for licensed race tracks.

Major events

Current licensing law does not cater for major events, such as the MTV European Music Awards, the Irish Open, Tall Ships, Giro d’Italia and more recently the 148th Open held in Royal Portrush.

The sale of alcoholic drinks on unlicensed premises is only possible using an occasional licence.  Permitted hours are therefore restricted to between 11.30am to 1.00am on weekdays and 12.30pm and midnight on Sundays.  Off-sales of commemorative bottles of alcoholic drinks are not permitted under an occasional licence.

In recognition of what an important driver major events are in developing the tourism industry, it is proposed to allow the Department to designate an event as a “special/major” event and to subsequently vary the permitted hours and allow certain off-sales at the event.

Allowing young people to attend private functions

Current legislation prohibits young people under 18 from being in any part of a licensed premise that contains a bar; or in any part of the licensed premise which is used exclusively or mainly for the consumption of alcoholic drinks. The only exception is where a children’s certificate is in force which allows young people to be on the premises until 9pm.

Where a main meal has been ordered before 9pm, young people can remain on the premises until 9.30pm.  Many family functions, including weddings, birthday and anniversary parties, are held on licensed premises.  Under the current law parents/guardians are required to remove their children from the function at 9/9.30pm.

It is proposed that young people may remain on licensed premises beyond 9pm, to attend a private function; provided they are accompanied by a parent/guardian and a main (table) meal is being served.

Remote sale of alcoholic drinks

Current licensing law is silent on the remote sale of alcoholic drinks (alcohol delivery service), online, via apps, over telephone etc.  Concerns have been raised that illegal sales are taking place via these methods with the potential for young people in particular to access alcoholic drinks.

It is proposed to amend the law to ensure that, where a sale has taken place remotely, the premises from which the alcoholic drink has been dispatched must be licensed.

Loyalty Schemes

Loyalty schemes are used by retailers to track customer behaviour and to reward regular customers.  Many retailers allow points to be gained from the purchase of alcoholic drinks or exchanged for the same.

There is concern however that this practice, similar to promotions of alcoholic drinks, encourage consumption and can result in people buying and drinking more that they had originally intended.  It is proposed to amend the law to prohibit this practice.

Requirements of Body Corporates

Under current law there is no requirement for a director of a corporate body holding a liquor licence to notify the court that they have been convicted of a criminal offence.  In practice, this means that a body corporate could be granted a licence, with all the relevant checks carried out on the listed directors, and then immediately change the director(s) to person(s) who may not have been granted one due to their convictions.

It is proposed that changes to the directorship of a body corporate must be notified to the courts as is the case for individual licensees.

Conditions on an occasional licence

Current law does not allow conditions to be placed on an occasional licence unless a previous function at the same place have caused undue inconvenience.  In practice, event organisers agree plans with the police, to particularly in respect of the protection of children and young people, but fail to adhere to the plans.

The proposal is to allow conditions to be placed on an occasional licence, with consequences for non-compliance.

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