Coulson: Tipping the balance of responsibility

By Peter Coulson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Alcohol disorder zones Social responsibility

Coulson: Tipping the balance of responsibility
MA legal editor Peter Coulson considers the burden of responsibility on licensees

Time was when a new licensee put his head down and got on with running his pub, not paying much attention to what was going on outside the doors.

This was never a good idea, from a commercial standpoint, because it is essential to know what is going on around you. But increasingly there is a legal aspect to the question of what is happening outside.

The introduction of doorstaff for pubs has clearly changed things. Doormen are instantly aware of the street scene, including problems and disturbances occurring near the premises. But pubs with no condition requiring doorstaff are not obliged, so far, to take responsibility for what goes on outside.

But is this entirely true any more? The debate about alcohol disorder zones, which is still raging, points to the Government view that there is some form of collective responsibility for what goes on in the street. Many years ago, in Bournemouth, this issue was raised for nightclubs which had their hours cut back because of street disturbances that were not necessarily connected with their operation. The higher courts had to take a view, even then, on whether individual licensees could be held directly responsible for what took place after people had left their premises.

One thing is clear: the idea that the buck stops at the front door is no longer true. The term "alcohol-fuelled disorder" indicates that the supply of alcohol comes before the trouble, and hence can be linked to the problem. The recent undercover campaign about serving drunks was linked to this, on the basis that irresponsible selling helped to aggravate the situation after people had left the premises.

But under English law we have not yet reached the position where the licensee can be held responsible for subsequent actions taken by individuals who may have been drinking on his premises. One judge held that there could come a time when the "fuelling" of a drunk person could be linked to a subsequent action, and would therefore be negligence, but there had to be "an immediate and apparent danger" of which the licensee must have been aware.

So drunk driving, for example, is a situation where the driver himself holds the main responsibility. It is not a legal requirement for the licensee to monitor individual consumption at this level, and indeed they could not do so. Similarly, if patrons got into a fight after leaving the premises, and someone was seriously injured as a result, there would be little direct legal redress against the landlord of the pub where they had been drinking.

But the growing trend for lawmakers and others to insist on "social responsibility" begins to tip the balance. While there may be no legal sanctions at present, if this turns into an obligation - such as the recent action over the self-exclusion of an addictive gambler - then the supplier of the services might find himself more involved than before.

This is why it pays all licence holders to have a strict policy on the recording of incidents, refusals and even angry exchanges with customers. If it becomes clear that you refuse service regularly in circumstances where you should - with the underage, those who are clearly drunk or those whose behaviour is annoying other customers - then the record of that is essential evidence that you are taking your responsibilities seriously.

When matters come to court, the attitude of the accused is always brought up and has a considerable influence on the magistrates. Make sure that in the unlikely event of it happening to you, you have a blameless record.

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