Fresh concerns have emerged over "Draconian" new powers for magistrates under the Criminal Justice and Police Act, which enables police to close pubs associated with disorder.
A judge in the high court has warned that justices will not only be able to keep a pub closed for at least two weeks but impose conditions on its reopening - such as restricting opening hours, banning music and limiting the number of customers.
Presenting a detailed analysis of the legislation to operators, lawyers and council chiefs at the IBC Liquor Licensing in Practice conference in London, licensing specialist John Saunders QC said he found certain aspects of the Act "quite alarming".
Police will have the power to close a pub "related" to disorder in the vicinity for up to 24 hours and must then take the matter as soon as possible to a licensing justice or other magistrate.
The magistrate can then:
- revoke the closure
- extend the closure to the next licensing session after 14 days have expired
- make "any other order".
"On the face of it, this is a very wide power and enables a single justice - not necessarily a licensing justice - to allow premises to stay open but with stringent conditions," said Mr Saunders.
The Act also gives licensees the right of appeal, but as Mr Saunders pointed out, unless some fast-track procedure is devised, the case will typically wait at least three months before reaching the crown court.
"The closure order remains in place until the appeal is heard, and that will have a permanent effect on a licensee's trade," he added.
Mr Saunders also expressed concern at other details, describing it as "remarkably vague" about whether a pub is "in the vicinity of" and "related to" disorder in the street.
"If, for instance, a publican turns troublemakers out into the street and they cause a disturbance, police could close the pub, even though the licensee has acted properly," he said.
David Clifton, The Publican Newspaper's legal expert, described the new powers as "Draconian". He said: "Mr Saunders has brought to our attention aspects of the law that have not been considered before."