Common sense for pubs on footie days

By Peter Coulson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Police The police

Coulson: police should be accountable for all closure actions
Coulson: police should be accountable for all closure actions
MA legal expert Peter Coulson considers the difference to policing football and rugby matches.

Often I go and watch my local football team in a stadium that is also used by a top-flight rugby team, usually on Sundays or on Saturdays when there is no home match.

I am struck by the difference in approach taken by the police on the two occasions — and the different laws that apply with regard to alcohol.

The rugby crowd, smaller by far than for soccer, seem to mingle happily with beers in hand. The police presence is minimal and there are no horses or detention vans — a far cry from the segregation tactics that have to be practised on match days in the league.

To be honest, the police presence for football is mainly precautionary. Every pub in the town centre has doorstaff on duty, who are taking care to check those trying to enter. But they will be there on any Saturday evening.

The problem comes on the occasions during the season when the police close pubs — both officially and "unofficially" — which we have featured in the Morning Advertiser from time to time. Closing a pub on a match day, particularly in the centre of a city, is a massive financial blow to the operator. It seems to me that it should only be used as a last resort and then only when there is a clear indication that disorder or violence could result from serving supporters.

I am well aware that informal agreements are often entered into during the season for match-day closures. Much of this is self-preservation, for pubs that do not normally cater for supporters, but for the community, which do not want the bar wrecked by yobs who get back in a train to their own patch without a second thought.


That is a commercial decision, taken by the licensee. It is when some form of pressure is exerted by the police that the problems might occur.

I do understand the police will often take the view that prevention is better than cure, and rather an extra pub or two be 'persuaded' to close than fuel a riot. But that means possibly one or two occasions when a cautious officer will lean too far and seek unnecessary closures.

The problem is that the police would prefer the informal approach than the statutory one provided in the Licensing Act, which requires paperwork, evidence, procedures and an eventual visit to the magistrates. While it is true that the Act allows them to take a pre-emptive strike, by issuing closure orders for pubs where they genuinely consider disorder may take place, that decision has to be soundly based and, according to the Act, not taken "in bad faith". Although it would be difficult for an individual licence holder to take an action for damages on this point (and the police are specifically exempted from liability by the Act), there might come a time when the trade in an area considers police actions to be heavy-handed and decides to take a stand.

The informal approach, however, should not result in threats to the licence. Bear in mind that this can only be a threat — it is not illegal to resist police advice to close, but it is an offence to defy a formal closure order and it is most inadvisable, as the matter will be brought before the magistrates and the licence will undoubtedly be reviewed by the council.

The magistrates themselves still have their previous power to issue a blanket closure order for up to 24 hours, on application by the police, and this continues to be used, sparingly, in the case of match days in particular. But the police should, in my view, be accountable in some way for all closure actions, so that they are truly made only as a last resort.

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