​Preparing for the ‘new normal’ in the Hospitality & Leisure Industry

28 May 2020


Following publication of the Northern Ireland Executive Five Step Plan to ease the COVID-19 restrictions currently in place and with further announcements due, many businesses across the Hospitality and Leisure Industry in Northern Ireland will be keen to plan ahead for re-opening.

As in all areas of business, no doubt business owners will be looking at their premises and the adaptations needed to cater for social distancing and public safety. Hoteliers, restaurateurs and bar owners, together with those businesses in the leisure industry which have alcohol as part of their offering, face the additional consideration of their liquor licence and the unique obligations they have as licence holders.

Many of those who tirelessly represent the industry have long campaigned for revision of the Licensing Laws in Northern Ireland and in these unprecedented times they have been calling for new and novel thinking around the licensed trade and regulation thereof in order to salvage the industry and get businesses back on their feet. Time will tell how all of this works out but for now business owners looking at their individual premises are doing so in the context of the law as it currently applies.

Bearing this in mind, their starting point should be their premises as currently licensed in accordance with the licensing plans approved by the court at which the licence was granted.If they now plan to alter their premises to facilitate their new way of doing business, they need to remember that certain alterations to licensed premises require the consent of the Court under Article 31 of the Licensing (Northern Ireland) 1996.

The following alterations require prior approval of the Court before being carried out on the ground:-

  • alterations which provide increased facilities for drinking in a public or common part of the premises; or
  • alterations which add to the premises a public or common part in which alcohol is sold, or substitutes one such part for another; or
  • alterations which conceal from observation a public or common part of the premises in which alcohol is sold; or
  • alterations which affect the means of passage between the public part of the premises where alcohol is sold and the remainder of the premises or any road or other public place.

Most, if not all revisions which business owners are likely to be currently considering will probably fall under the type of alterations set out in Article 31. The owners of hotels, restaurants, and pubs may currently be considering creating or extending beer gardens or making structural alterations to their premises to maximise the space available to allow customers to maintain social distancing and such alterations require prior consent of the Court.

Unauthorised alterations to licensed premises may well call into question the validity of the liquor licence at renewal date or in a future sale.

The proverb ‘It is better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission’ does not sit well with the Licensing legislation in Northern Ireland and those considering alterations to licensed premises should take specialist legal advice before doing so. This also includes retailers in the convenience store business who may be considering extending or altering their off-sales areas within their stores to meet increased demand for alcohol sales. Article 31 applies equally to alterations to off-sales areas.

A liquor licence is a valuable asset to all those who currently hold one and whilst there are challenging times ahead no doubt, the industry will meet those challenges and chart a practical course to provide for the future.

If you have any queries in relation to alterations, or liquor licensing generally, please contact our Hospitality & Leisure Team.