- 7 Apr 2020
The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 responds to the emergency situation caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, and is part of a co-ordinated effort in Scotland and across the UK.
The legislation contains a number of temporary, but significant changes to the alcohol and civic government licensing regimes in response to the outbreak. These changes are designed to assist users of the licensing system as well as licensing authorities with the significant challenges posed by the Coronavirus outbreak.
Why changes to licensing are necessary
The Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 (the 2005 Act) and the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 (the 1982 Act) contain provision for the licensing of different activities such as the sale and supply of alcohol (in the 2005 Act) and taxi and private hire (in the 1982 Act).
These licensing regimes contain a considerable number of strict timescales and deadlines with little or no discretion available to relevant authorities if they not adhered to. With both businesses and licensing authorities under unprecedented disruption as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, it is likely that people could lose their licences through no fault of their own.
The licensing provisions in the Act are intended to provide additional flexibility and discretion to help minimise licence holders (such as individuals and businesses) and other key licensing interests being adversely affected.
In certain circumstances Licensing Boards (under the 2005 Act) and licensing authorities and local authorities (under the 1982 Act) are obliged to hold hearings. The holding of hearings will be difficult and subject to disruption as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
Accordingly the Act contains provision which gives new discretion to not hold in person hearings and to instead provide alternative means for persons to be heard by telephone, video-conferencing or by written communication (including electronic communication). There will also be discretion to dispense with the requirement to hold meetings in public. This is to ensure that Licensing Boards and other licensing authorities can act consistently with social distancing and other requirements.
The changes made
We consider the licensing provisions in the Act to be a pragmatic response to the coronavirus outbreak. In some areas, they empower the relevant licensing authority to extend timescales and deadlines. In other areas, they give further time to key licensing partners such as Police Scotland when views are being sought on licensing decisions. In some other areas, discretion is given to excuse the failure to meet a relevant deadline or other procedural step if the relevant authority considers it reasonable. As a package, the changes are designed to minimise the chances of licence holders’ right to hold and keep a licence being adversely affected through no fault of their own as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.
There is also a change to the current powers for Licensing Boards under the 2005 Act to relieve procedural failings. Currently, a Licensing Board may relieve any applicant or other party to proceedings before the Board of any failure to comply with any procedural provision if the failure is due to mistake, oversight or other excusable cause, and the Board considers it appropriate in all the circumstance to relieve the failure. This power does not exist in relation to relieving procedural failures on the part of the Board itself and the Act makes provision in this area where this arises as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Necessity and urgency
Without the changes provided for in the Act relating to licensing, there is a high risk of significant numbers of licensing interests, such as those holding premises licences which authorise the sale and supply of alcohol, being unable to adhere to the strict statutory rules that apply.
In the context of the coronavirus outbreak,we do not consider that anyone should be penalised due to being unable to adhere to the normal rules through no fault of their own.
How long the changes have effect
The changes in the Act will expire (though anything done under the Act will continue to have effect) after 6 months.
This 6 month period can be extended by a period of 6 months by a vote of the Scottish Parliament until 30 September 2021.
Documents relating to the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 can be found on the Scottish Parliament website.