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Ruling against Wetherspoons highlights pitfalls businesses face under Northern Ireland's licensing laws, says expert

Wetherspoons has lost its bid to obtain a licence to open a new pub in Belfast. The case highlights some pitfalls that await businesses when trying to navigate Northern Ireland’s complex licensing system, an expert has said.11 Jan 2018

According to a report by the Belfast Telegraph, Wetherspoons applied for a provisional licence to operate a new pub at premises on Belfast's Royal Avenue, in premises previously occupied by JJB Sports. However, its application was rejected following a hearing at Belfast County Court amidst opposition from six rival pubs.

James Griffiths of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "Here, in Northern Ireland, where an application for a new licence is being made in respect of either a pub or an off-licence, the court will not grant the licence unless a subsisting licence is surrendered to the court at the same time as the new licence is granted. It is effectively a 'one in, one out' system. This is self-evidently restrictive for businesses wishing to open new premises in Northern Ireland, as they have to incur the time and cost of obtaining an existing licence to surrender to the court prior to even making the application for a new licence. The choice of which subsisting licence to acquire is therefore of paramount importance." 

According to Griffiths, in the Wetherspoons case, the judge found that the licence that the pub chain was looking to surrender was actually invalid, because unauthorised alterations had been made to those licensed premises in the past. 

Under Article 31 of the Licensing Order (NI) 1996, any proposed alterations which impact on the sale of alcohol need to be approved by the Court first. 

In the absence of those necessary approvals, the judge found that the licence that Wetherspoons was looking to surrender had been invalidated, and therefore was not a subsisting licence capable of being surrendered. 

"The case shows both the importance of rigorously examining the validity of any subsisting licence that a business is looking to acquire prior to applying for your new licence, and for existing licence holders the importance of ensuring that any proposed alterations to licensed premises are checked with a solicitor before carrying out the work in order to ensure that the licence is not invalidated by carrying out unauthorised alterations," Griffiths said.