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Policing and Crime Bill to address emergency licensing review 'ambiguities', says government

Out-Law News | 15 Feb 2016 | 11:10 am | 2 min. read

The legal position of 'interim steps' imposed by a licensing authority in England or Wales against premises where alcohol is sold in response to a police complaint is ambiguous and should be reviewed, the government has said.

It intends to use the Policing and Crime Bill, which is currently before the UK parliament, to make changes to the law so that the licensing authority will be required at the full review hearing to determine what interim steps should be in place pending the outcome of any appeal, or the expiry of the time limit for making an appeal. The question currently does not have to be decided at the full hearing, meaning that any interim steps often remain in place unchanged for the full 21 day appeal period before the review decision takes effect and for the period pending the outcome of any appeal..

Licensing law expert Christopher Rees-Gay said that, if adopted, the proposals would "give much-needed clarity for all".

"Since 2007 when 'summary reviews' were introduced, it has been a very contentious issue as to whether the interim steps imposed by a licensing sub-committee remain in place until an appeal has been disposed of," he said. "Often, due to the serious nature of these reviews, the interim steps taken will have been to suspend the premises licence meaning that the premises can no longer trade - a disaster for the operator."

Section 53A of the 2003 Licensing Act gives police the right to apply for an urgent review of a premises license if those premises are associated with "serious crime or serious disorder". The licensing authority has to consider this application within 48 hours, and may impose interim steps which can include suspension of the premises licence pending a full review.

Once the full review hearing takes place, the licensing authority's decision usually takes effect either after 21 days, which gives the licence holder time to appeal to the magistrates' court; or once the appeal has been decided. The uncertainty of the current law can result in businesses being subject to "unfair steps" for an extended period, or in "unsuitable premises continuing to operate freely for long periods", according to an explanatory note published alongside the Policing and Crime Bill (25-page / 409KB PDF). This can be a particular problem where an appeal is lodged by the licence-holder, which can delay implementation of the authority's final decision "by several months", the government said.

The government's preferred option is to require the local authority to review any interim steps at the hearing and decide which steps, if any, should remain in place until its final decision takes effect, according to the note. The police and the licence holder would have the right to an expedited appeal against any remaining steps to a magistrates' court after the hearing in this scenario.

As an alternative, the government has suggested that the interim steps could automatically cease after the review hearing. However, this course of action has the potential to create "new loopholes", it said.

"[The review option] is preferred as it addresses the ambiguity in the law and protects the rights of businesses," the government said. "It offers a flexible, fair and proportionate solution for all parties."