Bill lifts bar for licensees

The Government's proposed Alcohol Reform Bill was "very much stronger" than current legislation and could make life "quite uncertain" for licensees, former Liquor Licensing Authority Judge Bill Unwin said in Queenstown yesterday.

Despite "dry crying" and "moaning" about the new Act lacking teeth, Judge Unwin said that, knowing what was on the horizon, he would be "shaking in my boots" if he was a licensee.

Speaking at the inaugural Hospitality New Zealand police breakfast in Queenstown, Judge Unwin said the Alcohol Reform Bill was expected to have its third and final reading next month, with the only contentious issue being the proposal to lift the purchasing age at off-licences to 20.

Once passed, it would have an impact on both existing and proposed licensed premises, he said.

"New licences may well become things of the past, so it is possible the value of current licences will go up. The really big news is that it's going to be much harder to get a licence, or easier for the liquor licence committee to refuse your application."

Judge Unwin said one of the major aspects of the new Act was the definition of harm, which would place far more emphasis on host responsibility and bars to ensure they were not responsible for breaches of the Act.

As an example, someone injured might be found to have a huge amount of alcohol in his system -"and he's been on your premises".

"There's a possibility there will be a disciplinary hearing ... in a case like this, it is much more easy to consider there has been abuse of alcohol. It seems to me to be a worrying aspect."

The new Act's one-way-door policies would "change the culture of Queenstown".

"I can't guarantee that it works - there are people who say it doesn't - but the theory behind it is people go home because there's nowhere else to go. You'll know you've got to stay where you are after a certain hour, so you probably will stay."

Once the Bill was passed, it would take 12 months to come into effect, Judge Unwin said.

"If you can get your renewal through before the passing of the new Act ... you may save quite a lot of money before the whole process gets taken over [by committees] who have the right to fix charges."

Under that system, new licences or licence renewals would be decided by three-person independent committees.

It was likely that in small towns, where there was a potential conflict of interest, the chairman of the committee might grant leave for an application to be dealt with by the authority, Judge Unwin said.

The committee chairman would be an elected representative, with the other two "drawn from a list" made by the local body.

"They will be on that list only if they have no current involvement within the industry, are not an inspector or police officer - there is no chance of them having any bias.

"The interesting part about that is that committee, who will hold your destiny in their hands, will be completely independent of the council," he said.

When making its decision, the committee must have regard to all aspects of the Act and, "somewhat terrifyingly for some of you", the issues of noise and vandalism also related to renewals.

"There are a huge number of opportunities to turn down applications."

Judge Unwin believed that once councils got organised, "very few licences will be granted".

That could make licences more valuable, but if a business was sold, the new owner would have to apply for their own liquor licence.

Alcohol Reform Bill
• Object is to ensure the sale and consumption of alcohol is done safely and responsibly and harm from excessive or inappropriate consumption is minimised.
• "Harm" includes: Crime, damage, death, disease, disorderly behaviour, illness and injury caused or contributed to by the excessive or inappropriate consumption of alcohol.
• When granting or renewing licences, a new independent committee would have to consider whether "amenity and good order" of locality would be reduced by effects of licence; noise levels; acts of vandalism; and "number of premises that already have similar types of licences" in area.

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