Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Northern Ireland begins two-phase reform to gambling laws

Out-Law News | 28 May 2021 | 8:19 am | 2 min. read

Gambling operators in Northern Ireland will face a statutory levy and mandatory code of practice under the first phase of reforms to the province’s gambling laws.

Communities minister Deirdre Hargey announced a number of planned changes to gambling laws, including a new offence of allowing children to play on gambling machines.

The legislation, to be introduced to the Northern Ireland Assembly in the coming weeks, will also make gambling contracts enforceable in law; broaden the definition of cheating to include attempted cheating, and allow bookmakers and bingo halls to open on Sundays and Good Friday.

Some of the restrictions on promotional prize competitions, such as those run by charitable organisations, will also be lifted.

Phase two of the reforms, expected to take place over a longer timescale, will include a completely new regulatory framework which will regulate online gambling, according to the government.

The announcement of the reforms follow a consultation process last year. Hargey said respondents were happy for some of the current constraints on gambling to be relaxed, but wanted the government and industry to do more to prevent, control and combat problem gambling.

Gambling law expert James Griffiths of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said the reforms were overdue.

“It has been readily apparent for a number of years that Northern Ireland’s gambling laws, in place since 1985, have not been fit for purpose. The antiquated existing legislation has not reflected the realities of society for some time, and so, unlike in England and Wales which enacted the Gambling Act 2005, the law in Northern Ireland has failed to account for the revolutionary technological and social developments with regard to gambling, not least the advent and proliferation of the internet, in recent decades,” Griffiths said.

“It is encouraging to see that new legislation, which has been trailed since 2013, will finally now be introduced to the Northern Irish Assembly. Whilst the specifics of the draft legislation remain to be seen and will shortly be published, it is hoped that the new legislation will balance a more permissive approach to aspects of the gambling regime, such as with regard to prize competitions and fund-raising campaigns which have been disproportionately restricted in Northern Ireland, with maintaining adequate protections for those most vulnerable to some of the potential risks associated with gambling,” Griffiths said.

Both the UK and the Republic of Ireland are currently undertaking reviews of their gambling legislation. The Irish government made amendments to its Gaming and Lotteries Act in January 2021 ahead of more substantial reforms expected later this year, while the UK government began a review of the Gambling Act 2005 in December 2020.

As in Northern Ireland, much of the focus is on addressing the changing environment for gambling caused by technology, and on protecting vulnerable consumers.

The UK’s Gambling Commission also put an emphasis on these areas when it unveiled its new three-year strategy in April 2021.