Drinking and the law

What are your legal rights when you get completely legless? Here's what you need to know about drinking, getting drunk, and the law.

Boy drunk on bench

'Just having a little lie down, officer...'

Can I get drunk in public?

Let’s face it; lots of people are drunk in public most Friday and Saturday nights. But just because Joe Public’s at it, it doesn’t necessarily mean your individual drunken behaviour is safe from the sobering hand of the law. Under the 1872 Licensing Act, ‘simple drunkenness’ can be an offence if you’re in any public place, including licensed premises. However the law doesn’t translate brilliantly to the modern world. The Act is particularly tough on drunks in charge of a bicycle, pigs, sheep, cattle, firearms, and/or a steam engine. So if you were planning to go out and get smashed with your pet pig tonight, we recommend leaving Porkie at home.

Although the 1872 Act might be a little out of date, your alcohol-fuelled antics could lubricate your ability to break laws in other ways. Outraging public decency is a prosecutable offence if your public behaviour is considered obscene, disgusting, or shocking in any way. So if your drunken alter-ego decides it would be hysterical to bare your bits, get jiggy in public, or just to wee somewhere inappropriate, you could find yourself sobering up in a police station later on trying to justify your actions. Plus theft and vandalism are crimes, so the cheeky pilfering of a traffic cone or the destruction of Mr-Next-Door’s flowerbed is not only clichéd – it’s also illegal and could land you in trouble.

What happens if I’m drunk and angry?

You only came out for one… But then the rounds began, then the rounds of shots started, and then the anger came. That inexplicable, overwhelming and completely alcohol-induced anger. Suddenly the nice level-headed person you used to be a few hours ago has disappeared and been replaced by some reddened lunatic screaming into your best friend’s/landlord’s/complete stranger’s face. Well, not only are you at risk of disowning everyone you know, you’re liable to arrest. Under the 1872 Licensing Act, you can be charged with drunkenness with aggravation or for being drunk and disorderly. So try switching to tap water before that red mist descends.

What if the landlord won’t serve me?

No matter how much you insist you’re not wasted, a landlord is not permitted to serve a drunken customer or permit you on the premises. The 2003 Licensing Act gives any licensee the power to refuse you service, kick you out and even bar you. No arguments. The Act also outlaws anyone under 18 working behind a bar, as well as the sale of drink ‘outside permitted hours’ i.e. during a lock-in.

Are police allowed to confiscate my alcohol?

Yes. If you are under 18, they can take it all – even that bottle of White Lightning hidden up your top. Under the 1997 Confiscation of Alcohol (Young Persons) Act, if you’re underage and boozing in public, the police have the right to take away your alcohol. And they’re entitled to tell Mum and Dad what you’ve been up to as well.

Can I be fined for being drunk?

If you get too wasted, your big night out could be pricier than planned. In an attempt to combat street crime the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act gives policemen the power to give you on-the-spot fines for public drunkenness. And if you don’t cough up the cash within the set period of time you will have to appear in court.

Can I get an ASBO or Drinking Banning Order (DBO) stopping me from getting drunk?

If you are a re-offending drunk who’s cheesed off the authorities repeatedly with your wasted ways, they might whack you with a drinking banning order. Similar to an Anti-social Behaviour Order, DBOs are designed to protect the public from people who regularly get smashed and wreak havoc. They can be imposed on anyone over the age of 16, and last from two months to two years. They can make it a criminal offence for you to buy alcohol, drink alcohol in public, or enter certain public areas.

Next Steps

  • The Citizens Advice Bureau has a great Advice4Me page, which explains legal rights specifically for under-25s.
  • FRANK offers friendly, confidential advice on all things drugs-related. 0800 77 66 00
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


Updated on 29-Sep-2015