Liquor and responsibilities

Two recent rulings by the Liquor Licensing Authority identify where the body thinks the contentious boundary between personal responsibility ends and host responsibility starts as it relates to the hospitality industry.

Two separate incidents resulted in the Poolburn Hotel licensee having his manager's licence suspended for three months; and Wanaka's Bullock Bar on-licence was suspended for four days.

In the Poolburn incident, a night at the Central Otago hotel ended with an intoxicated Irish farm worker dying after he crashed the car he was driving.

In Wanaka, bar shareholder and director Sean Colbourne was convicted of assaulting a patron following a fracas with a customer which resulted in a portion of the patron's ear being bitten off.

Authority head Judge Hole was stern in his decisions, even saying he was surprised given the severity of the charges that shareholders had allowed Mr Colbourne to remain a director of Bullock Bar.

While Mr Colbourne's actions were committed in his private capacity, the finding determined Bullock Bar Ltd could not escape responsibility because one of its directors committed a criminal offence.

Judge Hole was similarly scathing about the behaviour of Poolburn Hotel manager George Andrew Morris, saying there was a "correlation between the respondent's deficiencies in the management of the premises and the death of the deceased".

Judge Hole said he had the impression Mr Morris had acquired the Poolburn Hotel for lifestyle reasons and because he enjoyed acting as "mine host".

Judge Hole said of Mr Morris: "The respondent had a legal duty not to allow him to become intoxicated and he failed in that duty."

Changes have since been made at the hotel: a courtesy van is now available, patrons are encouraged to eat more, barbecue food is available at a small cost, free water and coffee are now on offer.

The decisions sent the clearest message about what is expected of hoteliers and that they are required to have a high threshold when it comes to host responsibility. This is not new. Hotels have long been encouraged to provide food, free or cheap non-alcoholic drinks for sober drivers, and courtesy vans.

But the rulings have reinforced the view managers and owners have to take responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of their patrons. So the inference from the rulings is managing a bar or hotel is as much about duty of care to patrons as it is a business.

But does this mean patrons are absolved of personal responsibility? The recent Law Commission report into New Zealand's liquor laws identified a concerning trend of young people pre-loading - filling up on alcohol bought cheaply from off-licences such as supermarkets before going out.

This trend must impact on any legislative response to address our drinking culture at licensed premises.

The 14 Government agencies interested in reducing alcohol harm will rightly point to the social and economic cost of the appalling drinking behaviour of many New Zealanders, the unacceptably high levels of alcohol-fuelled violence and alcohol-related road carnage as evidence our drinking culture is not mature enough to leave responsibility solely to the individual.

The Government has tried to find a balance between personal and host responsibility in its response to the Justice and Electoral Committee's report on the Alcohol Reform Bill, with Justice Minister Simon Power stating it was "conscious to do this in a way that does not unfairly penalise responsible and moderate drinkers".

Many of the committee's recommendations identify changes in drinking behaviour - for instance by allowing more community input into off-licence retail premises, controls on where supermarkets can display and advertise alcohol, and demanding greater pricing disclosure, primarily aimed at supermarkets, to ensure there is no excessive price discounting.

The Government's response to alcohol law reform has been said not to go far enough, particularly in relation to advertising, access, pricing and drink-driving. The Law Commission's recommendations certainly went further than the Government is prepared to go.

But there also has to be a balance between personal responsibility and state control. Part of finding that balance comes down to changing individual behaviour and, unfortunately, as experience with many social issues shows, that will not happen quickly.


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