Out-Law News 2 min. read

Northern Ireland licensing reform ‘game changer’ for industry

Plans to modernise licensing laws in Northern Ireland, including extended opening hours and the removal of restrictions on trade over the Easter period, will be a “game changer” for the hospitality industry, a Belfast-based legal expert has said.

James Griffiths of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, was commenting as the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Bill was approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Bill will now be put forward for Royal Assent, with the majority of its provisions expected to take effect on 1 October 2021.

“At long last, some of the more anachronistic restrictions which are imposed by the existing legislation will be liberalised when the Bill receives Royal Assent and is made law,” he said. “Measures such as the extension of opening hours, the relaxation of enforced closures over the Easter period and enabling cinemas and local alcohol producers’ premises to become licensed will be celebrated by the hospitality industry, locals and tourists alike.”

“The Bill’s approval will serve as a further boost to an industry which has suffered terribly during the Covid-19 pandemic, and which has started the process of recovery since indoor hospitality was opened up again in Northern Ireland in May,” he said.

The Bill’s approval will serve as a further boost to an industry which has suffered terribly during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Once the changes are in force, pubs and hotels will be able to apply to open until 2am for up to 104 nights per year, while smaller pubs and registered clubs will be able to open until 1am for up to 104 nights per year. The legislation also allows for “flexibility” around opening hours during major events. Opening hours on Sunday evenings will be the same as any other night, and restrictions on opening hours over the Easter weekend will be removed. ‘Drinking up’ time will be increased, from half an hour to a full hour.

Cinemas will be able to apply for a liquor licence, allowing them to serve alcohol to customers watching films; while a new category of licence will be created to allow local producers of craft beers, ciders and spirits to sell their products directly to the public. Sporting clubs will be able to host licensed functions at their grounds up to six times per year.

The Bill also contains measures to mitigate the harmful effects of alcohol, including restrictions on off-sales drinks promotions and preventing the collection and redemption of loyalty scheme points when purchasing alcoholic drinks from supermarkets. Self-service of alcohol and sales by vending machines will be prohibited.

Communities minister Deirdre Hargey said that passing the legislation had been a “priority”.

“I know from my engagement with the hospitality sector that it is so important to them to have a more flexible and modern licensing system,” she said.

The Bill also makes provision for a full statutory review of Northern Ireland’s licensing laws within a year of Royal Assent, after assembly members voted to approve an amendment to the legislation put forward by SDLP member Matthew O’Toole.

James Griffiths said: “This will include analysis of whether the controversial ‘surrender principle’, which strictly limits the number of off sales and pub licences available in Northern Ireland and is often cited as a barrier to investment here, ought to be maintained”.

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