Inconsistent licence extensions have sparked controversy says thePublican.com's legal adviser, David Clifton.
Reading the Sunday papers, a headline on the front page of the Sunday Times caught my eye. "We can't stop crime, say police," the words read. The article referred to an international study, which shows that Britain has the lowest number of police officers among comparable countries. For every officer in New York, there are just seven crimes, compared with 41 in London. Berlin has one police officer per 124 people, compared with one per 545 in Sheffield and one per 376 in Manchester.
The Police Federation, backed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, was due to tell the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, that Labour's plans for 124,000 officers by 2003 were inadequate and that this should be increased to 140,000 in order to police the country effectively.
Sadly, a familiar story and one which surfaces regularly in the licensing courts up and down the country. Lack of police resources and drop in police recruitment is the reason behind many, if not most, police objections to licensing applications, whether they be for a new licence, extended trading hours or enlargement of licensed premises. "Serious policing implications" is a phrase often used, with the implied, if not expressed, view that such applications will inevitably lead to increased drunkenness and lawlessness.
While having some sympathy for the position in which the police currently find themselves, I have consistently argued that such complaints by the police should be addressed to the Home Office, rather than to the licensing justices or local entertainment licensing committees.
Police resources should, in my view, be concentrated on enforcing the law and licence conditions against poorly-run premises, rather than spent preparing objections to applications for well-run premises or reputable operators.
You may find similar police objections if you are thinking of applying for extended hours for special events taking place at your pub or bar this summer.
It was recently reported that licensees in Brighton and Hove were angry that their requests for extended summer opening hours were rejected by the local licensing justices, despite a similar extension being granted by the justices in Hastings.
So controversial was the refusal that the chairman of the Brighton and Hove bench took the fairly unusual step of going into print herself in the local newspaper. "Until Parliament legislates for longer drinking hours, justices can only act within the law as it stands. That law demands permitted hours are only extended where the occasion in question is deemed to be special," she wrote.
Therein lies the potential difficulty. What is special and what is not? The Hastings justices appear to have regarded events organised in a resort with many outside visitors during the summer period as "special" and to have taken the view that times have changed since old cases were decided on the point some years ago.
A similarly robust view was taken by the justices in Scarborough, who relied on the fact that the local population doubles during the summer months.
"Inconsistent" the licensees in Brighton cry. And well they might, but the established case law does indicate that it is for the local justices to decide what is and what is not a special occasion.
However, one has to ask oneself whether an extension of just one hour on Friday and Saturday nights on 12 weekends during the summer is really the sort of application to justify a rigid interpretation of the law, as appears to have happened in Brighton. No right of appeal to the crown court. A lot of cost and time involved in taking the matter to the high court - so much time in fact that the autumn could well have arrived before a decision was reached.
Not a happy state of affairs and not one that is easy to overcome under our existing laws. An application for a general order of exemption is unlikely to succeed unless there are shown to be a considerable number of persons attending a local market or following "a trade or calling" in the immediate neighbourhood. Also, licensing justices have power to modify the permitted hours in their area, but only by bringing the opening hour forward from 11am until 10am, not by extending the closing hour beyond 11pm.
So, unless you qualify for a supper-hour certificate, extended hours order or special hours certificate, that is it, unless you can prove that the occasion for which you are seeking extended hours is special. Roll on the principle of 24-hour licensing!