The legalities of selling alcohol over the internet

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Related tags: Alcohol, Bottle, Website, Internet

Buying booze online: Internet sites cannot avoid the legal requirements
Buying booze online: Internet sites cannot avoid the legal requirements
A recent enquiry highlighted a general uncertainty in relation to the legality of selling alcohol to customers in England and Wales over the internet.

It appears that some online shopping sites and internet forums encourage the sale of alcohol in certain situations and are claiming that no authority under the Licensing Act 2003 (the Act) is required.

There are a number of attempts by internet sites to exclude sellers of alcohol from their legal obligations, which require every sale of alcohol to be made under the authority of either a premises licence or a temporary event notice.

For example, one such site suggests that alcohol can be sold if it is contained in “collectable” bottles or containers. Astonishingly, it goes on to explain that the “value of the item is in the collectable container and not in its contents”. There are also suggestions that the sale of alcohol can take place without the relevant authority, if the container has not been opened and any alcoholic contents are not for consumption.

Firstly, whether or not alcohol is in a “collectable” container or a cheaper glass bottle is irrelevant. Section 1 of the Licensing Act 2003 identifies the “sale by retail of alcohol” as a licensable activity. Consumption of alcohol, though normally regulated by conditions on a premises licence, is not a licensable activity under the Act. Therefore, it follows that whether or not the alcoholic contents of a bottle are intended for consumption is immaterial. The fact that alcohol is sold means an authority is required.

Hopefully, we are all in agreement that no amount of fancy words can get around the reality of the requirement for proper authority to sell alcohol in England and Wales.

The enquiry following the above advice was: “Who should be licensed, the website providers, the company or business address selling alcohol, or where purchase takes place?”

We have to again look to the Act for assistance and, in particular, to section 190, which clarifies where the contract for the sale of alcohol takes place when the payment for the alcohol occurs at a different time or location to where it is obtained.

In a situation where the purchase of alcohol takes place over an internet site, payment is inevitably made in advance of the delivery of alcohol. Section 190 (2) identifies that the sale of alcohol is to be “treated” as taking place where the alcohol is specifically selected for delivery.

Under those circumstances, a premises licence or a temporary event notice would be required to cover the premises where the alcohol is in storage or obtained for purchase over the internet.

(Obviously, it goes without saying that if a premises licence is in place, then the designated premises supervisor would also be required to authorise the sale of alcohol.)

The requirements under the Act could possibly be avoided if the storage facilities were abroad. Clearly, other countries will have their own legislation in relation to the sale of alcohol that must be complied with. Furthermore, HM Revenue & Customs would look at investigating and have their own comments to make in relation to payment of duty and other taxes for this kind of business.

Related topics: Licensing law

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