The Licensing Laws governing the sale of alcohol in the UK1

The Licensing Laws of the United Kingdom refer to the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. This can be an arcane subject, confusing to the visitor to the UK. Whilst Britain did not have prohibition in the 20th Century, it has had some restrictive legislation, which had a large effect on drinking culture and practices.

There have been recent changes in the legislation, notably the Licensing Act 2003, which came into force on 24th November 2005. The gist of this act was to put in place a single scheme of licences2 for handling sale of alcohol, late night entertainment and refreshment. Hence licensing now controls more establishments than are just selling alcohol, e.g. kebab shops.

The hours of sale of alcohol are still restricted, and run until 11pm unless a late licence has been granted. The granting of late licences is not automatic, and the application will be delayed and/or refused if members of the public or interested parties raise objections (which result in a hearing in magistrates court for each objection). Sale of alcohol before 11pm also requires a licence, and can be objected to by the same mechanism, as can late night entertainment and refreshment, not involving alcohol.

Note that there are two types of alcohol licence:

  • On-Licence concerning the sale of alcohol for consumption on the premises. (This includes clubs and restaurants)
  • Off-Licence concerning the sale of alcohol for consumption off the premises. (This is principally for supermarkets and liquor stores, referred to as off licences in the UK in common parlance; take away food vendors that sell alcohol need an off-licence).

The most important change with this act is a shift of authority and process, from magistrates (who previously had sole responsibility for granting of licences) to local councils, with magistrates courts providing a mechanism for appeals. This has implications that there is now a greater degree of accountability, as local councillors are democratically elected, hence there is far less opportunity for corruption (in theory). Note that the Licensing Act applies just as much to private clubs as to pubs and restaurants.

Another change is that it is more difficult for the new mechanism to grant temporary licences - bar extensions for one off events. This means that the emphasis is for establishments to apply for late licences just in case they are needed for special celebrations. Many councils have websites carrying details of which pubs have been granted late licences. Beware: just because a pub has a late licence doesn't mean you will be served after 11:00. The licensee is perfectly entitled to refuse to serve you after 11:00, as indeed he can refuse to serve you at any time, without giving a reason. Note that many pubs will refuse to serve you, or even admit you if you arrive after 11:00.

Media Myths

For at least six months upto November 2005, the tabloid press has been running scare stories about 24 hour drinking. In practice, the granting of a 24 hour licence is extremely rare. Apparently, there are only five 24 hour licences granted in Greater London - and these are probably off-licences.

Binge Drinking. The press are adamant that later hours will lead to increased consumption. While this might be the case initially with the novelty of the late hours, I don't believe that this is a long term trend, but time will tell. Personally, I have been drinking less, having many more evenings at home and venturing out at 10:30 for a night cap, rather than spending the whole evening drinking. I also notice that the roads are far less chaotic at 11:30 when everybody used to pile out.


Victorian times saw a huge growth in the brewing industry, together with a proliferation of pubs and gin houses. This happened hand in hand with the industrial revolution, as people flocking to the towns and cities provided a ready market for alcohol.

Authorities at the time became worried about drunkenness and alcoholism; many of the efforts were targetted at the gin palaces, which were seen as dens of iniquity. There was a shift of people to the pubs as the gin palaces were closed down.

There was also a growth in puritanism, teetotalism and the temperance movement, which took hold worldwide in the early 20th Century. This ultimately resulted in the total outlawing of the sale of alcohol - prohibition, in the USA. In the UK, faced with supplying troops for World War I, and keeping the workers sober in the armaments factories, the Asquith government (Liberal) introduced the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), 1914, which curtailed the sale of alcohol, including restricting the hours during which it was legal to be sold. The prime mover of this was David Lloyd George, minister for munitions. Lloyd George was a Welsh baptist and a teetotaler, and many critics and historians look on his actions as an attempt to shut down brewing in the UK completely. He was not successful in this, as the demand for a pint was enormous.

DORA itself was repealed after 1918, but the concept of prescribed licensing hours for selling alcohol has remained, which makes the UK unique in having this legislation. There have been many subsequent changes to the licensing laws, generally relaxing them over time, to permit sale of alcohol in the afternoon, and on Sundays.

Sources and further information


1 There is a general understanding and common usage in the UK, that licensing refers to the sale of alcohol, despite the fact that there are plenty of other kinds of licence.

2 The Brit spelling convention is used throughout this writeup. The noun is "a licence", and the verb "to license". Americans use the word and stem "license" in both cases. Practice/Practise is similar.

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