Talking Trade

James Woods — Liquor Licensing guru

James Woods has written what many regard as the Liquor Licensing Law bible in Ireland. Now in its fourth edition, his Guide has been studied and leafed through by all seeking a definitive answer to the more arcane aspects of our licensing laws. Pat Nolan spoke with the former civil servant, now retired.

Mention ‘Woods’ and ‘Liquor Licensing Law’ in the same breath to any barrister involved in the licensed trade and you’ll get instant approbatory recognition. For James Woods – now retired – spent most of his working life helping clarify the most abstruse aspects of liquor legislation and compiling it under one illuminating title, Liquor Licensing Laws of Ireland.
For this, he’s revered as the doyen of the dock.

“It was while working in the District Court office in Cork in the 70s that I became aware of people ringing up and asking ‘How do I apply for this or that kind of licence?’,” he tells me over lunch in Costello’s Tavern in Limerick’s Oliver Plunkett Street, “I had a very good memory at the time so I could refer them to the relevant pages in an Act”.

He soon realised that text books on the law, practice and procedure of the Courts were almost non-existent. He reckoned it would be a good idea to fill the gap and compile such a guide. His first of 15 books on jurisdiction, practice and procedures of the District Court appeared in 1972.

The books reflect the changes that have occurred in the law relating to licensed premises during the last 40 or so years..

Sale of Alcohol Bill
So as someone well-versed in the minutiae of liquor licensing legislation what does he make of the much-pressaged – but increasingly evanescent – Sale of Alcohol Bill, that would-be Codification of all the licensing laws under one roof?

“Bringing it all into one Act is one thing,” he stresses, “but unless you update it at the same time, it would be quite useless as you’d be taking sections from an 1833 Act and lobbing them into a 2010 Act.”

The only time that this was done successfully, he points out, was the Hotel Proprietors Act 1963, one of the first consolidations of all the acts relating to inns and travellers.

“What’s needed is to eliminate a lot of the obsolete provisions in the Intoxicating Liquor Acts since the foundation of the State.”

Nightclubs as legal entities
While nightclubs have come a long way since the State’s foundation they’re still crying out for some sort of legal recognition.

“A nightclub is a hotel or pub with a dance licence that runs functions,” explains James, “It’s clear that many premises barely pay lip-service to, or totally ignore the statutory requirements. A practical solution to the dilemma might be to grade licences according to the hours during which the licensees wish to operate. The excise duty payable on such licences could be calculated using criteria such as turnover/amenities offered/hours of opening applied for. This would do away with the necessity for returning to court for expensive Special Exemption Orders; it would give licence holders the option to concentrate on different facets of the trade (non-licensed business/pub food/entertainment/discos etc).”

He makes no bones about the hike in the cost for a Special Exemption Order: “The current court fees are grossly excessive for the amount of court time taken up in processing these applications. It’s purely a revenue earner. Anyway, they’re usually applied for in bulk so that 10 SEOs to cover two or three weeks will cost €10,400 in court fees.

“Excise duty should be in accordance with the hours you want to work,” he believes, “And court fees need to be readjusted. If there was a graduated licence, SEOs would no longer be required; neither would Area Exemptions.”

Some legal chestnuts
To dispose of some old chestnuts, he points out, “There’s no obligation on a licensee to open and keep open the licensed premises for all the permitted hours of trading.

“Neither will opening for one day a year necessarily protect the licence from objection to renewal on the grounds of not trading. Non-licensed business can, since 2000, be carried on at any time without a structural separation being in place between the area used for non-licensed business and that used for the licensed trade.”

And he points out that while there’s a law against dropping prices during one day, there’s none against raising them as the day goes on.

“When ‘the Happy Hour’ was abolished, the effect of the legislation was not to prohibit selling liquor at different prices during the course of the day provided that the prices charged are increased rather than decreased as the day goes on, for example all pints €3.50 before seven pm and €4.50 thereafter.

“I think it would be a good idea to let the licensee pay for whatever hours he wants…. A certain excise duty would be payable for a one o’clock closing, another for 2am… Excise duty should be in accordance with the hours you want to work,” he believes, “And court fees need to be readjusted. If there was a graduated licence, SEOs would no longer be required; neither would Area Exemptions.”

James addresses another anomaly: excise duty is currently based on on-trade turnover whereas that for off-licences remains a flat fee of €500 for each of the three licences: spirits, wine and beer.

“… So no matter how big your outlet, you’re only paying €1,500 to retail alcohol in the off-trade even if your turnover is €2 million (though you’d be paying hefty excise duty nevertheless).”

Gradual change
With a career in licensing legislation spanning 40 years, he can vouch that change in the licensed trade has been gradual.

“The restructuring of the Licensing Acts began in 1960, followed by the 1962 Act,” he recalls, “1960 also saw the need to swap two old licences for one new one introduced, provided that the new licence was at least a mile from the next nearest licence.

“Thereafter improvements have been gradual. The 1988 Act introduced SRLs, for example, while the 2000 Act made huge change between licensed and unlicensed trade, one of the very enlightening things about the 2000 Act.”

The 2000 Act also allowed the use of any licence in the State rather than having to get one from within the same parish.

‘Fly-by-night’ lesees
James also agrees with calls to look at the current spate of ‘fly-by-night’ lessees, persons operating on the residue of an existing licence by temporary transfer and who pay no tax, moving on before they’re caught up with.

“Either have the person tax compliant on taking over the licence (not required at present) or look at the bond situation,” he suggests, “Bonds are not unheard of – a primary example being the auctioneers and house agents who don’t normally lodge the eur*-equivalent of £10,000 in the central office of the High Court but would normally take out an insurance bond for that amount instead,” he explains.

Theatre Licence first
James’ other claim to fame is in finding the lacuna in the licensing legislation which facilitated a way to permit late night licensing.

“Under the misapprehension that such licences had to be granted under Royal Patent or a special Act of Parliament, no Theatre Licences existed between 1930 and 1981,” he recalls, “In doing some research for my 1981 edition of the liquor licensing Guide I discovered that a Music & Singing Licence would entitle the holder to apply for a Theatre Licence, so the first Theatre Licence to be granted under a Music & Singing Licence was the former Theatre Royal in Limerick in 1981. After that the floodgates opened.

“The secret was out that you could get a late licence on foot of a Music & Singing Licence if you could satisfy the Revenue Commissioners that you were a bona fide theatre.”

Theatre Licences were believed to be confined to theatres but James argued successfully that provided you offered entertainment and had the Music & Singing Licence, even ‘though you were a pub you could also be granted this Licence.

Costello’s, this very tavern in which we lunch, was one of the first pubs to benefit from James’ advice in having both a Publican’s Licence and a Theatre Licence attached, obviating the need for expensive SEOs.

“In conjunction with his Publican’s Licence the Theatre Licence kicked in when Flan Costello was hosting entertainment later, without the need for a SEO,” says James, “I saved him some grief until they changed the Theatre Licence law.”

Costello’s caters to a living legal legend this afternoon in more ways than one.

James Woods – CV

James entered the civil service in 1959 as a Customers Officer, joined the District Court Service in 1963 and retired in 2002 as Chief Clerk of the Limerick District Court Office having qualified as a Barrister in 1985.  His 15 books on the jurisdiction, practice and procedures of the District Court include four editions of the Liquor Licensing Laws of Ireland in 1981, 1992, 2001 and 2011 (the most recent in conjunction with Nicola J Andrews).

The latest edition of Liquor Licensing Laws of Ireland co-authored by Nicola J Andrews and James V Woods was published in June 2011 and is available directly from James Woods, 12, Elsinore, Castletroy, Limerick (061 511332/087 7433292).

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