A Fresh Wave of Liquor Licensing Hell: the Devil Went Down to Scotland

Greyfriar's Bobby Scots Law
Having experienced the chaos in September 2009 first-hand, working with some of Scotland’s largest alcohol suppliers and sellers, WardblawG agrees with most of what Mr Johnston has to say and, so, would like to reinforce Tom’s comments and, indeed, add from its MD's own personal experience of the gruelling inception of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 in Scotland (the “Act”). Commentators have and will continue to suggest improvements. But what this author would like to see are two main changes: first, a template training module accessible online for free, published by the Scottish government; and, second, the existence of a licensing board that heads up all the other licensing boards in Scotland which provides a real leadership role and which should, hopefully, stop major differences existing between, among other cities and towns, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Liquor Licensing Law in Scotland

The Act, available here, was drafted by the late Lord Gordon Nicholson CBE and his committee. I do not intend to explore too much of its substantive detail. For such expert commentary, see Cummins, Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, 2nd ed, 2009, available here, or Scott Blair’s commentary here.

And, contrary to anything I might say below, I do believe that the liquor licensing act of 2005 is a good thing, as is control of alcohol sales and consumption. And its drafting is a credit to Scots law. But its implementation has, with respect, been a complete shambles at one of the worst times in Scotland’s economic history. Think I’m joking? I am not joking. Read this article, for instance which states that, at June 2010, hundreds if not thousands of businesses are trading strictly in violation of licensing laws because their premises have not yet been issued a premises license, through no fault of their own and, indeed, despite having forked out thousands of pounds each to pay for the licenses: where has their cash gone?!

Major Issues

There are two major issues: first, excessive bureaucracy and red-tape designed for the public sector to rake in money from businesses; and, second, ambiguities which no-one can seem to clarify publicly. This stems from two possible reasons: either, first, the decision maker, whoever it may be, is sitting on the fence with key judgment calls; or, second, and perhaps most worryingly, there is no decision maker. I fear it is this lack of decision-maker or leader or boss, or whatever it is to be called, that is badly missing from the Scottish licensing regime. Why has a massive petition not yet been lodged to Holyrood? Probably because those who are in charge of separate parts of the licensing regime, e.g. boards, trainers, police, firemen (yes, the fire chief constables have a role in this too) and advisers have been too busy either hogging work and cash and, thereby, their jobs, or legitimately trying to do their best for Scottish business and the Scottish public.

The solution, as I suggest below, is that we should create one main licensing authority, with all licensing boards becoming a subsidiary of that authority. Yes, it might look like additional bureaucracy, but what we have at the moment is a flock of disjointed licensing board sheep missing a shepherd. Perhaps this new body might justly shear the wooliness out of the new Act.


First, to bureaucracy: the Act demanded and, indeed, still demands far too much of it. Two of the most annoying measures in this respect, for businesses and practitioners, are personal licenses and personal license training:

“Personal licenses” are required for everyone selling alcohol in Scotland, which cost £50 each, which are usually printed on cheap A4 and reproducible by anyone, with no economies of scale taken into account for large businesses with multiple license holders. The idea of personal licenses for everyone selling alcohol is, arguably, useful in principle. But, despite the hard work of licensing board staff throughout Scotland, its implementation has been scruffy: not even mentioning the disaster that was 1 September 2009, take, for instance, the mandatory police interview: the police licensing team has to approve each individual’s personal license after dragging people away from their businesses. I was told personally by one officer in Edinburgh that only one or two individuals out of thousands had been refused the grant of a personal license. Now, if people with drink driving convictions should still get a personal license, does it really take an interview to determine those who shouldn’t get one? How much time and money has that interview process cost businesses? Too much, especially in a recession;

“Personal license training” is required for everyone to become a personal license holder. It is essentially just a fancy way of saying that they have to read a list of mandatory conditions here and have to know not to sell to youngsters or those who look like they’re about to collapse through alcohol consumption. But the training was not given statutory form through the Act; instead, the Act prescribed only what should be covered in the training, leaving it for employers, training companies or, indeed, lawyers, to create their own training manuals. Again, what a senseless waste of time and money for businesses. Look at who has profited from this: companies who “train” people up to take an SQA-approved test that is almost impossible to fail, even if you didn’t manage to pass your Highers. Granted, the cost of sitting the ultimate test is, perhaps, acceptable, but the tie-in with training is not;

Please have a seat on our fence!

Second, the Act and its implementation creates three ridiculous ambiguities and insinuations without any explanation to clarify what is meant: it is as if the drafters of the legislation wrote it, then forgot to put someone in charge of implementing it, or, if they did, they forgot to tell them what it meant or forgot to tell them how to publish guidelines:

No Duty to Trade

The first of these insinuations is that there might be a duty on premises license holders (i.e. alcohol sellers) to operate their business for every single one of the hours for which they had a license to sell alcohol. This has become known as a potential “duty to trade”. Commentators, lawyers and, worst of all, the public sector are still sitting on the fence with this issue, saying that it might exist. But, if you live in the real world, how can you possibly force someone to keep their shop open until the last minute of the day for which the Licensing Board has granted them a license? Of course you can’t. A license is just that: permission to opt in to do something; not a mandate to sell alcohol, which would in fact fly in the face of the purpose of the legislation: to restrict alcohol sales and abuse.

Compare that to keep-open clauses in commercial leases where there is a very real threat of damages for closing early or, most commonly, a threat of specific implement (specific performance in England).

Well done Tom!

Thankfully, at least one practitioner has voiced what many of us were too scared to say. Tom Johnston, managing partner at Young & Partners LLP, noted almost heroically in response to editor Peter Nicholson’s question if there was a “duty to trade” that:

“That’s one of the easier licensing questions – it does not exist.”

However, as Tom also explained, the question continues to raise its head from time to time, and so he has provided a comprehensive commentary here.

No duty to keep stock promotions stocked

The second issue, and even more ridiculous than the duty to trade suggestion, mandatory condition 7(b), found here, has scared businesses into thinking that if they have a price reduction for a certain alcoholic product, they must keep that product stocked throughout the minimum promotional period of 72 hours. While, yes, they have to keep the promotion active for at least 72 hours, they are of course allowed to run out of that product without replacing it. An explanatory note to that effect would have been most welcome; again, the implementers of the Act have failed to make a basic legal distinction clear to the public and, perhaps, to themselves: a license is a permission to do something, not a duty to do something, albeit that a license brings with it certain conditions. Of course it is extremely important for some businesses to have and maintain their licenses to sell alcohol, but that does not mean that licensing boards can terrorise businesses into believing and procuring practical and commercial irrationalities.

Who you gonna sue?…Ghostbusters?

The third ambiguity is caused by the government or, perhaps, licensing boards not making it clear who might be liable under the legislation. Caution must be taken, because there are very few decent guidelines available to the public.

On the one hand, it is a good thing that the Act veers on the side of caution. But, on the other hand, there are very real limits to vicarious liability.

I am not the only one who shares this view or, perhaps more aptly, blindness: Tom Johnston wrote in the Journal:-

It will not only be the licensee who can be convicted. The list of potential accused will include any “interested party”. This can include the owner or person having management or control of the business. Remarkably, it can also include the owner of the building. A leisure park near my office is owned by Grosvenor Estates. It has a dozen or so licensed premises. If His Grace the Duke of Westminster (or any other property owner who lets property for use as licensed premises) wants to stay out of Saughton or Barlinnie Prisons, he will require a due diligence strategy. I’m not sure I currently know how to prepare that, but when the shock of this fresh hell has passed and I have recovered the power of speech, I’ll think of something.

Fair enough, when the Act was drafted, spirits (no pun intended) were high and there were good intentions. But when an economy starts to fail, controlling alcohol consumption to extreme levels should not be a top priority for the Scottish, nor any, government.

What should be done?

Commentators have and will continue to suggest improvements. But what WardblawG would like to see are three main changes:

First, a comprehensive set of guidelines and FAQs on the Act made available for free to the Scottish public on the web, not just by FOISA request.

Second, a template training module accessible online for free, published by the Scottish government; and

Third and most importantly, the creation of a licensing board that heads up all the other licensing boards in Scotland which provides a real leadership role and which should, hopefully, unite the licensing boards of Scotland.

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