Time to call time on licensing laws?

David Young, partner, Eversheds

Elizabeth Southorn, head of licensing unit, Richards Butler

Peter Glazebrook, partner, Field Fisher Waterhouse

The Home Office is under increased pressure from the drinks industry to review proposals on liquor licensing laws.

A group of trade bodies representing the industry presented a list of proposed changes to the Home Office last week. The proposals include extended opening hours of licensed premises on an individual basis and granting licences that can can be retained if the holder changes premises.

The Government launched a review of licensing laws in May 1998, but there are concerns in the industry that legislation could be delayed by a general election in 2001.

Fears have also arisen over a government proposal which would shift responsibility for granting licences from magistrates to the highly politicised and less experienced local authorities.

But do lawyers agree that the changes need to be made in the first place, and will the reforms mean an increase in work for licensing specialists?

David Young, a partner in the regulatory and licensing department at Eversheds, believes the laws are outdated and need to change.

He says: "People recognise these rules were fine 20 or 30 years ago. But the fact of the matter is that social mores change, and they change more rapidly than every 30 years."

Young is in no doubt the changes will affect the amount of work for lawyers in this area.

He says: "Frankly, we will have less work out of it, because day-to-day licensing will be more routine and simple right across the country.

"If reform is serious and sensible, we will actually be depriving ourselves of work. But the role of the lawyer is not ultimately what this is about."

Elizabeth Southorn, head of the licensing unit at Richards Butler, disagrees. She believes there will always be work in licensing, especially if firms take a niche approach. "Our workload is at the top end of the market and very specialised," she says.

However, she says if changes are made to licensing laws it will not be a smooth process of change, but she concedes that the system of applying for licences does need to be improved. "One of the worst ways to spend a day is hanging around court waiting to be heard," she says.

According to Southorn, the biggest area of concern for lawyers is the Government's proposal to allow local authorities the power to grant licences.

"We think the magistrates are far better qualified to deal with the volume and the whole nature of licensing.

"Magistrates have the training, experience and the lack of political bias. Local authorities can change overnight. Some are excellent, but an awful lot more are not," she says.

Peter Glazebrook, a partner in the licensing unit at Field Fisher Waterhouse, agrees the proposals could cause problems.

He says: "I would prefer the courts to keep it. I am not for local authorities doing it because it becomes rather quasi-political."

However he says that licences that can be kept when an individual changes premises rather than requiring a new license with each new outlet are a good idea.

"If someone gets into trouble, you do not just lose your licence, the whole premises does as well. While you might want to blackball the individual, you probably do not want to blackball the whole premises," he says.

Glazebrook says that there could be objections from the entertainment industry because changes to opening hours could mean drinkers will no longer need to find somewhere to go after 11.30pm is a solvable problem.

"Nightclubs will probably resist but I do not think they are that strong. They are certainly a minority of the whole industry," he says.

But while he believes opening times will be moved to after the 11pm mark, Glazebrook strongly doubts the industry will get "free reign" to open at all hours.