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Drinking and the law

Did you know drinkers in Northern Ireland have more time to finish their pints than those in Scotland? Or that its illegal to try and buy alcohol for someone who is drunk? Read our guide to drinking legally so that you know the score.

Most of the laws about alcohol are contained in the Licensing Act 2003.  This applies to England and Wales, although similar legislation exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland. New legislation in Scotland came into effect in 2009.

Licensed premises

Anywhere that sells alcohol needs a licence to do so; it's a criminal offence to sell alcohol without one. The law splits places that sell alcohol into three groups:

  • Places such as pubs, clubs, hotel bars etc are licensed to sell alcohol to be consumed on and off the premises;
  • Shops that sell alcohol only for drinking away from the premises.  That's why they are called "off-licences".
  • Temporary licences are available for things like music and beer festivals, but these will be classed the same as pubs and clubs.

Under age

It's illegal to:

  • Sell alcohol to anyone under 18, or to someone you suspect is buying on behalf of someone under 18.  The only exception someone over the age of 18 can buy beer, wine or cider for a 16 to 17 year-old to accompany a meal in a restaurant;
  • Buy or attempt to buy alcohol if you are under 18. You're also breaking the law if you drink alcohol on licensed premises if you are underage;
  • Be under 18 and on the premises of somewhere selling alcohol between the hours of midnight and 5am.

In Northern Ireland it's illegal to be in a pub under the age of 18 either unaccompanied, or if it does not have a Children's Certificate or it is after 9pm.

There are currently plans to give police legal powers to confiscate alcohol from under-18s drinking in public. Currently they can only do this if they believe a young person or group of young people have been involved in alcohol-related crime or disorder.

Selling alcohol when you are under 18

  • You can sell alcohol if you are under 18 where you are serving a sit-down meal in a restaurant.
  • At all other times, you can only serve or sell alcohol with specific approval of a designated supervisor, or someone authorised by them. This is required for every sale.

Drinking in public

Currently it isn't illegal to drink in public. However many areas have alcohol-free zones that target town centres and/or residential areas where there is a particular issue with drinking in public.

Some parks and other places have similar bans; including public transport in London. It is an offence to refuse to hand over alcohol to a police officer who believes you are drinking in these areas.

Being drunk and disorderly in a public place is illegal; although providing you don't do any damage or give the cops verbal, the most they'll usually do is take you back to the nick and give you a cell so you can sleep it off.

Drinking in pubs

The licensee of a premises has discretion over who they allow into their pub (although they are bound by discrimination laws). You don't have any rights to get served.

Drinks cabinet

You don't have any rights to be served

In England and Wales the Licensing Act 2003 ended the requirement to have last orders at 11pm. Now drinking times are based on individual pubs and can vary dependent on the day of the week. This also applies with drinking-up time.

In Scotland there are still set hours, although pubs can apply for regular extensions of opening which means that plenty of pubs open later than 11pm. Fifteen minutes of drinking-up time is currently allowed.

In Northern Ireland there are still restrictions on pub opening hours; 11pm on Monday to Saturday and 10pm on Sunday. You've got thirty minutes to finish your drinks before getting kicked out.

It's illegal to:

  • Sell, or attempt to sell, alcohol to someone who is drunk;
  • Buy alcohol for someone who is drunk;
  • Allow "disorderly conduct" to occur on the premises;
  • Not to leave a licensed premises when asked by the police, the licensee or someone acting on their behalf.

Drink driving

Driving with more than 35 microgrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath is a criminal offence, as is failing to give a sample.

Updated: 06/06/2011


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