The main piece of legislation that controls the sale of alcohol is the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005. The Act balances the rights of the majority who drink responsibly with the need to protect local communities from nuisance and crime associated with alcohol use. It is based on five licensing objectives:
· preventing crime and disorder
· securing public safety
· preventing public nuisance
· promoting and improving public health
· protecting children from harm
Like many local government functions, meetings of the Licensing Board are open to the general public and dates/ venues can be found on council websites. The licensing process allows for individuals and/ or community groups to attend and raise their concerns and state their objections in person. But just how easy is it for an individual to engage in the process?
John Holleran, Scottish Families Alcohol Liaison Officer attended a Licensing Board meeting to find out and has written a blog of his experience.
Licensing that captures the imagination: for all the wrong reasons?
In order to understand the licensing process fully and to gain an insight into how the licensing board guidelines have been put into practice within Glasgow, I decided to go along and observe the proceedings. I had high hopes about this having read in the initial guidance notes from 2007: ‘Ministers wish boards and their clerks to be creative and innovative and to implement the Act in a way that best meets local needs and circumstances. The guidance that is too prescriptive would hinder that creativity’.
The guidance notes issued by GCC licensing board were clear about what to do if you had a role to play in the process yet lacked information for members of the public wishing to observe. There was no indication that this was permitted other than pointing out the public seating area.
On arrival… I asked where the licensing board met as I had never been before. I was told to ‘take a seat with the rest of the folk over there’ with a gesture across the foyer towards some seating filled by people in suits (who I would later learn were license applicants). Someone else, like me, was along for the first time and sat opposite me looking through notes. At 9.30am I still wasn’t any the wiser as to where I should go – I approached the receptionist to ask what the format was and was told I should just go in (with a doubting and uncertain look on their face). The person who had been seated opposite joined me and together in uncertainty we made our way into the hall.
The setting … We sat in the public seating area, perched slightly above the rest of the attendees and set quite far back in the room. This was just about eye-line with where the board members would eventually sit, over and above the proceedings. This struck me as a clear and deliberate structure that imposed some form of hierarchy and authority over the room where the board members sat much higher than the officers, ‘witness box’ and lectern. Those accompanied by representatives seemed very at ease – or at least until they were requested to speak directly to the board members. Notably, there was only one microphone for the public whereas each board member and the person with an official role had an individual microphone. I can’t help thinking that this was not an accident.
Potential barriers… On entry to the hall, a member of the board loudly exclaimed ‘court rise’ followed shortly by ‘please be seated’. Throughout the day the formalities, use of titles and the choice of language were very exclusive in nature. This served to reinforce the official nature of the decisions being made (in a quasi-judicial capacity) and, rightly so, reflected how seriously the duties were taken by the board members. On the flip side of this, it was difficult to keep track of what was going on due to the terminology, language, and speed at which this was being used. This was mirrored by how quickly the different roles were being brought into play ranging from Board Chair and board members to the clerk and police officers who were there to put forward information. It was even difficult to tell who was speaking at certain times.
Personal Experiences…During one of the first Occasional License hearings, a member of the public was called forward to highlight their objection to the application (formally submitted prior to the hearing and in keeping with the licensing process requirements). It turned out that this was the person I conversed with previously, there to represent their organisation. Having conversed for quite sometime before (made possible by a substantial delay for the board to consider a private license hearing) I considered this person to be very articulate, knowledgeable and well -prepared. Despite this, when approval for a continuation was requested on behalf of the applicant (via the Chair), this person had to seek clarification stating that they were not entirely sure of what was going on or what was being considered. It was only then that the proceedings slowed down and the situation was clarified. I was extremely relieved at this as I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on either. It showed the capacity for those involved to interpret the situation for the public, with ease, if required or if they felt it was necessary. From then on each occasional license application was presented one-by-one with evidence put forward by the applicants, their representatives, and recommendations sought from the police. In turn board members actively questioned, through representatives initially then directly, the would-be licensees. This continued in the formal fashion as before.
The questions from the Board…. I was very comforted by the commitment shown by the seven board members in challenging areas of concern where children, young people, families, and the wider community may be put at risk as a by-product of the activities of the evening economy. This was (for me) very much in keeping with the priorities set out in the Single Outcome Agreement for Glasgow. Special conditions were explored to maintain a fair balance between maintaining a healthy social sector and efforts to reduce substance-related harm.
What was very impressive…? (for all of the wrong reasons) was the range, and depth of imagination conveyed by many applicants in making the case for their licences to be granted in terms of financial, social or community-spirited benefits to the areas they were based. One applicant suggested, despite a long string of violent behaviours, drug offenses and previous closure that the community was fully behind their licence application having organised a community event in support of this. Another suggested that alcohol, combat-sports and unrestricted access for children of all ages would be an appropriate mix for an occasional licence.
And so… Each of the occasional license applications that day was approved with the exception of those granted a continuation. I couldn’t help thinking that, at present, the whole process is lacking input, imagination, and creativity in the form of finding a suitable way for individuals, families, and communities to have an active voice. Would they really want to be involved in this? The publics’ best interests were conveyed effectively by the councillors on the board, bolstered by legal requirements, regional priorities and genuine will (I imagine) to protect their constituents. Sadly, it seemed that any expression of creativity and imagination was lost in this process and was best exercised by license applicants and their representatives rather than the structures at play.
If you have found this useful I recommend you go along and observe your local licensing board in action.
The following blog was written by an individual called to comment on a written license objection they had submitted –
Engaging with the licensing process: My Day in Court…
Called by the Licensing Board to speak to an objection I’d lodged several months earlier, I really didn’t know what to expect. On arrival, I was told to “just take a seat over there”. The appointed hour came and went and there was no announcement about where to go, or even whether it was ok to go into the courtroom. Pretty much everyone else seemed to know what was going on except me so I was really pleased to meet John from SFAD; it was his first visit as well and like me, he’d been abandoned in the corner but we joined forces and found the public seating area where we kept each other company and tried to piece together what was going on for the rest of the morning.
The court sits in an impressive room that feels like a court of justice and this was emphasised by the command to “all rise” when the Licensing Board members arrived and the formal, legal language used throughout the proceedings. This is an alien (perhaps almost intimidating) environment to most of us however it reflects the important and serious nature of the work of the Licensing Board, and I was impressed by the depth and breadth of consideration Board members had clearly given to each case before them and the forensic nature of their questioning.
It turned out that the case I was involved in was not heard that day at the applicant’s request. As part of the proceedings, I was asked if I agreed to this. At least I think that’s what I was asked; the question was couched in legal terms that I didn’t understand. Years ago I’d have been too embarrassed to admit that but now I know that the only stupid questions are the ones you don’t ask, and I have to say that when I did seek clarification it was given clearly and kindly. Later one of the court officials explained to me what the next steps would be and I’ll be back in the licensing court sometime soon when I hope to get the chance, at last, to speak to my objection.
For anyone thinking of lodging an objection, these would be my top tips:
- Check your council website’s Licensing Board page to find out how to frame your objection and follow the guidelines carefully. Include as much detail as you can.
- When you go to court be prepared to sit there for a long time before you get the chance to speak; the case you’re involved in will be one of several on the agenda.
- Be aware that everything about the court is formal including the way people dress and speak.
- License applicants have legal representatives to speak for them, but you’ll be speaking for yourself. Don’t let this put you off. If you’ve submitted an objection within the guidelines you have a right to be in court and to be heard. What you say details the wider potential impact of any licensing decision and is an important part of the “evidence” that the Licensing Board considers when making their decision.
- Take a friend for moral support.
- Remember that it’s ok to ask if you don’t understand something!
Both accounts are from experience of Glasgow Licensing Board; if you are interested in carrying out a similar review of your local licensing process to feature in one of our future briefings please get in touch to discuss this: firstname.lastname@example.org