Setting foot in the door of your new pub is an exciting experience - the decorators have put down their brushes, the chefs are preparing the steak and kidney and the bar's fully stocked, but you're not going to get very far without a licence.
Licensing is a complex business and applying for a licence is no easy feat, particularly as more magistrates are insisting on formal qualifications before granting one.
Would-be publicans would be wise to take advice on licence applications, and many first-timers prefer to have their solicitor's representation in court.
If you fail to get a licence it will undoubtedly cost your business dearly, so making sure you know the procedure is vital.
Suzanne James, licensing solicitor at London-based Joelson Wilson & Co, said: "There are many traps for the unwary and for many people it's vital to have a solicitor to make sure that deadlines are met. People can make some terrible problems in court - the most common problem is people fail to serve the relevant people with an applications, which can hold the procedure up by weeks."
Licensing has been criticised over recent years. At present all licence applications are decided by local magistrates and in the absence of formal guidelines, this has led to inconsistency across the country with magistrates in some areas being far more lenient than others.
Most publicans experience this on special occasions, like New Year's Eve, when magistrates in some areas won't hesitate is granting 2am extensions, while neighbouring boroughs will find themselves being forced to close at 12.30am.
The government is striving to solve the problem, but its alternative has not been welcomed by the trade. Under a White Paper for licensing reform, published last year, the government plans to shift the control of licensing into the hands of local authorities.
The trade is against such a move, with 88 per cent of publicans and nine out of 10 pub operators, voicing their objections. They feel that local authority control will result in possible fee increases, extra red tape and, above all else, political influences.
The government remains adamant that this is the best step forward and is continuing with its proposals. We will, however, not see any changes to the law until 2002, so in the meantime the following pointers will help you in the application process.
Type of Licence?
Before anything, you must decide what type of licence you are after. A basic on-licence will allow you to serve alcohol on the premises between the usual permitted hours of 11am to 11pm (with some regional variations).
A justices on-licence authorises the sale of alcohol of all descriptions but it can also be restricted to certain categories only - like beer, cider and wine only. You must also decide whether you require additions like a Supper Hour Certificate which allows you to open later if you have music and dancing and offer food (See box).
It's important that you research the legal procedure properly and make sure you have a good understanding on licensing law. Licensing justices will want to ask you several questions relating to running a pub and you could fail to be granted a licence if you are unsure of the answers.
Increasingly, more magistrates are insisting that new applicants have undertaken formal training and many are using the National Licensee's Certificate from the British Institute of Innkeeping as a benchmark. This basic qualification tests you on everything from weights and measures to social responsibilities and gives a good overall understanding of the legal requirements in a pub business.
Increase Your Chances
Find out if the police have any concerns about the area, type of operation, supervision and security. If you can deal with these issues before coming to court, your application will proceed much more smoothly.
Similarly, approach the fire authority to see if it has any comments on the premises' plans - if they do, try to incorporate them. One thing can be guaranteed, if the fire officer dies not approve of your plans, your application will be dismissed.
Have A Good Licensing Solicitor
A good licensing solicitor will work alongside you from the outset, and will be able to advise on the strengths and weaknesses of your scheme, problems, possible solutions and what is required by law.
Applying for a licence
If you choose to engage a licensing solicitor, he or she will lodge your licensing application on your behalf and do much of the homework required. However, if you choose to carry out the process yourself you will need to give written notice of the application and a detailed plan of the premises to the clerk to the licensing justices (based at the local magistrates court), the chief officer of police and to the local authority (or Parish Council if in a parish) no less than 21 days before the date of the licensing session at which the application is to be heard. The application must include the name and address of the premises, indicate which areas of the premises are to be licensed and what type of licence is being applied for. Remember to sign the application.
All applications must be advertised. A notice must be displayed at the premises for at least seven days and a notice of application must appear in a local newspaper on a day not more than 28 days or less than 14 days before the licensing session. The purpose of this is to give all residents the opportunity to voice their objections.
Licensing justices may require the applicant to attend the hearing - almost certainly if this is a new licence or new applicant. The justices will want to hear from the police and fire authority to make sure they are happy with the application, they will also hear any objections that have been raised. You will also be asked a couple of questions relating to licensing law - this is when good research and training comes in handy. The aim of the questions is to establish whether you are a "fit or proper person" to hold a licence.
They will want to make sure that you are not disqualified from holding a licence because:
- you are under the age of 18
- you have been convicted of forging a justices' licence or making use of a forged licence
- you have been convicted of allowing licensed premises to be used a brothel
At their discretion, justices can fail to grant a licence because:
- alcohol has previously be sold without a licence
- drunkenness has been permitted on licensed premises
- illegal gaming has taken place on licensed premises
- the applicant has previous convictions for violence or drinking and driving
Granting a licence
If the licensing justices are satisfied, they will grant a licence for the premises and the applicant is free to serve liquor. If, however, objections are strong enough the licensing justices have the power to adjourn the hearing or dismiss the application.
Choosing a solicitor
For newcomers to the trade, obtaining a solicitor is advisable. To do this:
- contact the court's licensing department and ask them which solicitors appear before them on a regular basis.
- contact you local Licensed Victuallers Association and ask who they would recommend
- speak to fellow licensees for references
- see who advertises in the trade papers
- see who writes advice articles on the subject
Other types of on-licence Although not directly relevant to the pub trade, licensees should be aware of the following types of licence:
- Part IV Licences: Restaurant and residential licences aimed at establishments where alcohol is served as an accompaniment to a meal eaten at a table (ie not a takeaway), or premises whose main purpose is to pr