Alcohol licensing laws of the United Kingdom

A licensing notice, often displayed above an entrance.

Licensing laws of the United Kingdom regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol, with separate legislation for England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland being passed, as necessary, by the UK parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the Scottish Parliament respectively.

Throughout the United Kingdom, the sale of alcohol is restricted—pubs, restaurants, shops and other premises must be licensed by the local authority. The individual responsible for the premises must also hold a personal licence. Premises licences, in as far as they concern the sale of alcohol, can be categorized to include on-licences (allowing consumption of alcohol on the premises) and off-licences (alcohol must be removed from the vendor's premises and drunk elsewhere). However, these are not distinctions found in the Licensing Act 2003, and the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland is more complex. Many on-licensed premises also permit off-sales.

The age at which people are legally allowed to purchase alcohol is 18 in most circumstances. If an adult buys alcohol on behalf of a person under 18 in a pub or from an off-licence, he can be prosecuted along with the vendor.

The Licensing Act 2003 thoroughly revised and consolidated into one Act all the many separate legislative provisions that previously covered licensed premises in England and Wales. The Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 brought the same reforms to Scotland.

The same reforms have been proposed for Northern Ireland, but have not been enacted. Therefore, in Northern Ireland the sale of alcohol remains more strictly regulated than in Great Britain.



In the mid-18th century, gin became extremely popular as it was much cheaper to buy than beer. By 1740, six times more gin than beer was being produced, and of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London, half were gin-shops. The Gin Act 1736 imposed a prohibitively high duty on gin, but this caused rioting, and so the duty was gradually reduced and then abolished in 1742. The Gin Act 1751 was more successful: instead of a tax it restricted gin producers to selling only to licensed premises.

During the 19th century, licensing laws began to restrict the opening hours of premises. After the outbreak of World War I, the Defence of the Realm Act was passed by Parliament, which restricted opening hours for licensed premises to 12:00 to 14:40 and 18:30 to 21:30. In more recent times, the licensing laws became less restricted and allowed pubs to serve drinks up until 23:00, although nightclubs were allowed to stay open much later. Significantly revised rules were introduced in November 2005.

Traditionally, the phrase "Last Orders!" is still often used to announce the last opportunity to purchase drinks, typically ten or fifteen minutes in advance, and is often announced via a bell, or by a loud bellow from Ness. At the point when the bar will no longer serve drinks, the bar staff will announce "Time at the bar!", or "Time gentlemen please!" (again, either shouted or via the use of a bell).

The wartime restrictions in Scotland were not repealed until 1976 (possibly due to a stronger temperance movement there). However, the repeal of these laws led to a situation whereby Scottish laws were generally less restrictive, with local authorities being allowed to determine opening hours. Most Scottish pubs now open until midnight, though this is not universal.

Since 2000, pubs have been allowed to open for 24 hours during New Year celebrations.


On-licence describes an establishment where alcohol must be consumed at the point of sale, such as a pub, bar, nightclub or café.

The name derives from the distinction between types of licence which could be granted—a distinction now repealed in England and Wales, and to be repealed in Scotland in 2009.[dated info] In England and Wales, the magistrates would formerly grant either an "off" licence permitting the sale intoxicating liquor for consumption only off the premises, or an "on" licence permitting sale for consumption on the premises—which permitted, to a limited extent, off sales too: many public houses were permitted off sales, to sell sealed alcoholic drinks (e.g., unopened bottles of wine) for consumption elsewhere. A restaurant licence was an on-licence with a restaurant condition attached. Until 2009, in Scotland the types of licence were Hotel, Public House, Restricted Hotel, Restaurant, Entertainment, Off-Sale, and Refreshment licences. In Northern Ireland, there are numerous types of licence.

When restaurants refer to themselves as fully licensed, they have a premises licence permitting only on-sales, often subject to a condition that the alcohol may only be sold with a meal. In this context, fully licensed simply means that the establishment is authorised to serve liquor in addition to beer and wine.

Under the Licensing Act 2003 and the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, there is only one type of premises licence, though the conditions placed on each one will determine whether on sales or off sales are permitted—which restores in practice what was once a legal distinction.

The premises licence is granted to a person, and not to the establishment. Before the Licensing Act 2003 came into effect, there was a legal requirement to display the name of the licensee above the entrance to an on-licence location. The sign would typically say "NAME OF LANDLORD licensed for the sale of alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises". Under the 2003 Act, that requirement has been repealed (though such signs are still often seen). Instead, the premises licence holder must secure that the official summary of the licence (or a certified copy) is prominently displayed at the premises, as well as the name and position of any person nominated as the custodian of the summary premises licence.[1]


Off-licence (sometimes known as off-sales, Offie or beer-off) is a term used in the United Kingdom and Ireland for a shop licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for consumption off the premises, as opposed to a bar or public house which is licensed for consumption at the point of sale (on-licence). The term also applies to the licence granted to the establishment itself.

Off-licences typically are specialist shops, convenience stores, parts of supermarkets, or attached to bars and pubs. Prices are usually substantially lower than in bars or pubs.

In the United Kingdom, the "off-licence" status of a shop could once be used as a device to circumvent restrictive trading laws, particularly those concerning Sunday trading. Depending on local by-laws, shops might be either required to close at 12:00 once a week, or else not be allowed to trade in the evening. Shops with an off-licence made their hours similar to those of public houses, opening during lunch hours and from early evening to the mandatory closing time, usually 22:30 or 23:00. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 altered the situation somewhat.

Licensing law in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, legislation is more restrictive than in Great Britain—a reaction to social problems at the beginning of the 20th century. Only a limited number of licences are available for pubs and off-licences; any new pub or off-licence wanting to sell alcohol must wait until an existing one surrenders its licence (known as the surrender principle).

Licences are granted and administered by the courts, not elected local authorities; the courts have no guidance to assist in the practical application of the law. A new licence is granted by the County Court and will only be granted on the surrender principle, and only if the court is satisfied that the existing number of licensed premises is not already adequate (the need principle). The transfer of a licence is a matter for the magistrates' courts.

There are currently twelve categories of premises that may be licensed to sell alcohol, amongst which are pubs, off-licences, and certain businesses where the sale of alcohol is ancillary to the main business.

Licensing law in Scotland

Scotland has had separate licensing laws dating back to the 18th century. The current legislation is the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005, which replaced the Licensing (Scotland) Act 1976 on 1 September 2009.[2] The replaced licensing laws provided for seven types of liquor licence, and were administered by licensing boards, made up of councillors elected to the local authority. There were approximately 30 licensing boards in Scotland and each had its own distinct approach-for example, whilst there is a set "permitted hours" across Scotland, these were frequently extended in order to take account of early morning and late night trading, and each licensing board had its own views on what sort of extra hours a premises should be given.

As of 1 February 2008, Scotland entered a "transitional period" in the run-up to the commencement of new licensing legislation—the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005. The 2005 Act is, in many respects, similar to the English Licensing Act 2003: it features the four English licensing objectives, but adds another: "protecting and improving public health". The Act creates one class of licence—the premises licence—and also introduces personal licences for those working in the trade. The administration continues to be carried out by licensing boards, but the Act has created new "Licensing Forums" in order to increase community involvement, and "Licensing Standards Officers" who have an information, mediation, and compliance role.[3]

One major change is that Sunday opening hours will be changed to match the rest of the UK, allowing sales from 10:00, rather than 12:30 with the 1976 Act.

Changes since 2005

In 2003, Parliament replaced the previous licensing laws for England and Wales, regulated under several different Acts, with a single unified system covering a range of "regulated activities". Rules as to when establishments can open, for how long, and under what criteria are now not laid down in statute but are individual to the premises and are contained in the conditions on each premises licence.

Permitted hours

Some long-standing traditions (indeed, legal requirements) have disappeared as a consequence. First, "permitted hours" gained a new meaning. Until the 2003 Act came into force in 2005, permitted hours were a standard legal constraint: for example, serving alcohol after 23:00 meant that a licensing extension had to exist—either permanent (as for nightclubs, for example), or by special application from the licensee concerned for a particular occasion. There was also a customary general derogation permitting a modest extension on particular dates, such as New Year's Eve and some other Public Holidays. Licensees did not need to apply for these and could take advantage of them if they wished without any formality. Now, permitted hours are theoretically continuous: it is possible for a premises licence to be held which allows 24-hour opening, and indeed some do exist.

Most licensed premises do not go this far, but many applied for licences in 2005 that allowed them longer opening hours than before. However, as in the past, there is no obligation for licensees to use all the time permitted to them. Premises that still close (for commercial reasons) at 23:00 during most of the week may well have licences permitting them to remain open longer, perhaps for several hours. Staying open after 23:00 on the spur of the moment is therefore legal at such premises if the licensee decides to do so—perhaps because custom happens to be good. Of course, the service of alcohol must still cease when the actual licence closing time arrives. Only the holder of the comparatively rare true "24-hour" licence has complete freedom in this respect.

However, it is not unusual for pubs to stay open all night during the weekend in urban areas.

Drinking-up time

The consumption of alcohol itself, is not considered a "licensable activity" under the new Licensing Act. Therefore "drinking-up time" (DUT) has no legal meaning and has disappeared. For many years ten minutes (and later extended to twenty minutes) was the legal dispensation which allowed the consumption of alcohol to continue after the official closing time, which in recent times meant that customers could still drink what they had already bought until 23:20 on weekdays, subject to the licensee's discretion. After that time consumption had to also stop.

With the end of standard permitted hours, this concession became irrelevant and there is no mention of DUT in the 2003 Act. Instead, applicants for premises licences can specify the maximum period (their "Opening Hours") for which they wish to allow their customers to stay after the time at which the sale of alcohol ends ("the terminal hour") within their Operating Schedule. In practice, many licensees simply do not specify opening hours at all, which allows an unspecified drinking up time, determined only by the licensee's discretion. In contrast, some licensees call for "last orders" twenty minutes (or more) before the end of the opening hours specified on their premises' licence.

Many public houses (etc.) still display (now defunct) provisions of the Licensing Act 1964. Such displays no longer have legal force so far as drinking up time is concerned.

Registration under the Act started in February 2005 and closed in August 2005, with the new licensing system having started (and the old one ending) in November 2005.


Licensing law in Scotland was overhauled by the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005,[4] which came into force in September 2009 following a transition period starting in February 2008. The new system covers alcohol sales only, but otherwise is, in most particulars, identical to the system created in England and Wales by the Licensing Act 2003. There are a number of significant differences, such as a "duty to trade" and attempts to control the irresponsible sale of alcohol through curbs on price discounting and other promotions which may lead to excessive consumption.

Northern Ireland

Licensing proposals in Northern Ireland were first announced by the Northern Ireland Office in 2004, leading to a consultation in 2005,[5] again very similar to the Scottish and English Acts. The proposals triggered much initial opposition, even from some parts of the licensed trade.[6][7][8][9] These proposals are not currently proceeding.[10]

Under the proposed rules, all premises where regulated activities are carried out must be authorized by a premises licence. Where alcohol is sold the premises must have a designated premises supervisor, who himself must hold a personal licence. There is a parallel system for the registration of private clubs which sell alcohol to members, and which require a club registration certificate.

Serving after 23:00

Part of the changes since 2005 allow pubs to serve alcohol past 23:00; this particular part of the legislation was, and remains, very controversial due to the perceived increase in potential for binge drinking and the effects the change will have on social dynamics. However, the new law's defenders have claimed that the relatively early 23:00 closing time itself contributed to binge drinking, as patrons hurried to drink before closing time. Labour also claimed that the fixed closing time contributed to social disorder, as drunken pub patrons were forced into the street at the same time.[citation needed] Both the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats unsuccessfully called for a delay in the implementation of this law.

Each licensing authority must adopt a licensing policy, which give guidance on when licences will be granted and the conditions and permitted hours likely to be imposed on a premises licence in various circumstances.

Licensable activities (England and Wales)

The Licensing Act 2003 defines "licensable activities" as:

  • the retail sale of alcohol,
  • the supply of alcohol in clubs,
  • the provision of late night refreshment, and
  • the provision of regulated entertainment

In turn, "regulated entertainment" is defined as:

  • a performance of a play,
  • an exhibition of a film,
  • an indoor sporting event,
  • a boxing or wrestling entertainment (both indoors and outdoors),
  • a performance of live music,
  • any playing of recorded music, or
  • a performance of dance
  • entertainment of a similar description to that falling in the previous three categories listed above.

"Late night refreshment" is defined as:

  • the supply of hot food or drink (that is, food or drink that is either served at, or has been heated on the premises to, a point above ambient temperature) to the public for consumption, both on or off the premises, between 23:00 and 05:00.

Licensing objectives

The licensing authority, in considering any application for a licence or for a variation must have regard to “the licensing objectives”:

England & Wales Scotland (Northern Ireland proposals)
1. The prevention of crime and disorder;

2. public safety;

3. The prevention of public nuisance; and

4. The protection of children from harm.

1. Preventing crime and disorder.

2. Securing public safety.

3. Preventing public nuisance.

4. Protecting and improving public health.

5. Protecting children from harm.

1. Promotion of public health.

2. Promotion of public safety.

3. Prevention of crime and disorder.

4. Prevention of public nuisance.

5. Protection of children from harm.

6. Fair treatment of all stakeholders[11]

Licensing authorities

The licensing authorities are local councils. In two-tier parts of England, these are the district or borough councils and elsewhere the unitary authority is the licensing authority. In Scotland each council has a Licensing Board to act as licensing authority.

For a premises licence, the licensing authority is the council for the place where the premises are located; where they straddle a boundary, the applicant may choose either one. For a personal licence, it is the licensing authority in whose area the applicant lives.

The Licensing Authority is also responsible for the distribution of a Personal Licence. A Personal Licence bears the holder (Personal Licence Holder, or PLH) the permission to supply or sell by retail, or authorise the supply or sale by retail, of alcohol to anybody in employment in a Licensed Premises.

Personal Licence

A Personal Licence is issued after an applicant has passed an exam, the National Certificate for Personal Licence Holders, or NCPLH. The NCPLH exam is a 40-question, multiple-choice paper, in which the applicant must achieve a score of 28 out of 40, or 70 percent. The applicant must also receive a Basic Disclosure, which determines whether the applicant is deemed acceptable to adhere to the Licensing objectives. The areas covered are drink driving, assault, and drugs-related convictions or charges. The licensing authority, not the Criminal Records Bureau, issues Basic Disclosures. If the applicant has admitted to any of these before the NCPLH exam has taken place, then the licensing authority can request the permission of the Chief Constable of Police force of which the licensing authority lies in to issue the applicant a Personal Licence. (For example, in the Metropolitan Borough of Trafford, the local Chief Constable of Police would be the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police.) If the local Chief Constable of Police does not authorise the issue of a Personal Licence to the applicant, the applicant cannot re-apply for a Personal Licence for two years.

If successful, achieving 70% in his/her NCPLH examination and by passing his/her CRB check, the licensing authority will grant the applicant a Personal Licence, valid for ten years. The licensing authority for a particular applicant is the local authority that is responsible for the area where they lived at the time the Personal Licence is granted. For example, if an applicant lives in Leeds, Leeds City Council would issue a Personal Licence to the individual had they passed the appropriate checks. The applicant would then become a PLH (Personal Licence Holder).

If a PLH moves to a different area either whilst his Personal Licence is due to expire, or has moved for a considerable amount of time and his Personal Licence will need to renewed during the time of expiry, the PLH will need to return to the licensing authority that issued his/her Personal Licence to renew it. For example, if the applicant mentioned above moved to London to run a pub, bar, shop, etc., and needed to renew their Personal Licence in order to continue running it, then they would need to return to their original Personal Licence issuer—Leeds—in order to renew it.

A PLH must inform the Issuing Licensing Authority of:

  • any change of address;
  • any change of name;
  • any convictions or charges of drink driving;
  • any drugs related convictions or charges;
  • any convictions or charges of assault; or
  • any convictions or charges of any other serious crime, for example, murder or rape

Failure to comply to the above results in charges, convictions, fines and the revocation of a Personal Licence.

A Personal Licence is valid:

  • if the Licence has been issued by a licensing authority in England and Wales, in any other area authorised by a different licensing authority, for ten years, but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland. If an applicant who was issued a Personal Licence in Leeds moved to London to run their pub, bar, shop etc., and then moved to Scotland instead, they would be required to undergo the same process again, in order to be issued a Personal Licence in Scotland.
  • if the Licence has been issued by a licensing authority in Scotland, but in Scotland only, for ten years. If the PLH wished to become a PLH in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, they would be required to undergo the same process again, in order to be issued a Personal Licence in the relevant area.
  • if the Licence has been issued by a relevant Personal Licence issuing authority in Northern Ireland, but in Northern Ireland only, for ten years and under substantially stricter conditions as the Licensing Authorities in England, Wales, and Scotland. If the PLH wished to become a PLH in England, Wales, or Scotland, they would be required to undergo the same process again, in order to be issued a Personal Licence in the relevant area.

A Designated Premises Supervisor (DPS) is required to be a PLH. A DPS is responsible for a Premises Licence, details of which can be found above.

Local variations

Some local authorities have introduced their own restrictions on street drinking. For example, Reading Borough Council has banned street drinking in parts of Reading town centre.[12] The reason for this is unclear, because the new local law merely duplicates the existing national law against being drunk and disorderly.


While the reforms from 2005 were intended to reduce "binge drinking", reports have variously claimed that the situation in England and Wales has not improved, or that it has become even worse. This has prompted a Parliamentary investigation.[13] The Department of Culture, Media and Sport concludes that the position presents "a mixed picture".[14]

Perceived problems in England and Wales shaped a slightly different approach in the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005. In turn, licensing authorities in England and Wales have been considering importing Scottish proposals to their licensing policies.

Most licenced premises are now following the Challenge 21 rule, which helps with avoiding selling to under age people. When a shop assistant believes that the person may be under 21, then they will ask the customer to prove that they are over 18.

See also


External links

UK Legislation

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