Any age policy has to be robust

Recent figures reiterated the importance of age verification

Operators should regularly remind staff of their age-check obligations

IT raised eyebrows: the news that almost a third of on-trade venues sold alcohol to mystery customers aged 18 and 19 without an age challenge.

As reported in SLTN (July 11, 2019), data released by Serve Legal, a provider of ID checking services, revealed that in the course of 668 visits around 193 of its agents were able to make a purchase without being asked for proof of age.

The operators’ laxity has a very bad look.

So, what are the nuts and bolts of age verification? What message does the trade need to take from these figures?

Since October 2011, virtually every premises licence has been subject to a mandatory condition providing that there must be an age verification policy in relation to the sale of alcohol in the premises. (There’s an exception for so-called “remote sales” – mail order, telephone and online transactions – where the purchaser and seller aren’t face-to-face.)

The policy is required to provide that “steps are to be taken to establish the age of a person attempting to buy alcohol if it appears to the person selling the alcohol that the customer may be less than 25 years of age (or such older age as may be specified in the policy)”.

That may seem straightforward enough, but there are a number of quirks.

A failure to operate the policy isn’t an offence provided, of course, that the purchaser is aged 18 or over.

And if alcohol is sold to a person under 18 without an age challenge, it’s a defence that, “no reasonable person could have suspected from the child or young person’s appearance that the child or young person was aged under 18”.

There’s also a conflict with another part of the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005.

Little purpose is served unless staff are made aware of the procedures.

In terms of Section 110, an offence is committed if the licence holder doesn’t display a point of sale notice (a) drawing customers’ attention to the law regarding under age sales; and (b) stating that where there’s doubt as to whether a purchaser is aged 18 or over proof of age will be required.

So, that is, in effect, a statement that the venue operates a ‘Challenge 18’ policy.

If an operator displays an optional Challenge 25 poster as well as the mandatory Challenge 18 notice customers could be excused for being confused.

Implementing the age verification policy is reasonably straightforward. It need not be in writing, but no sensible operator would fail to keep a paper trail.

The policy should make it clear that if a person seeking to buy alcohol looks under the age of 25, the sale must be refused unless he or she produces one of the following documents: (1) a passport; (2) an EU photocard driving licence; (3) a Ministry of Defence Form 90 identity card; (4) a “PASS” card; (5) a national identity card issued by an EU member state (other than the United Kingdom), Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland; or (5) a Biometric Immigration Document. (In the event that Brexit takes place, a UK driving licence will be added to the list.)

The production of the paperwork also serves as a defence if an underage sale is in fact made, provided that “it would have convinced a reasonable person”.

Of course, little purpose is served unless staff are made aware of the procedure.

So it’s vital that every employee involved in alcohol sales is required to sign off a copy of the policy, confirming that he or she has read and understood its requirements.

In fact, you should go a step further and issue regular reminders; keep a record of these too.

Although the Serve Legal results demonstrate a worrying slackness on the part of a significant number of pubs, bars and late night venues, data released by the Scottish Government in 2015 suggests that the number of direct underage sales in the on-trade is small to vanishing; and that school pupils (aged 13 and 15 in the survey) were most likely to obtain alcohol at home or from a friend or relative.

And, interestingly, the Serve Legal report disclosed that more than half (57%) of their “mystery shoppers” took delivery of an online order of alcohol and other age-restricted goods without being asked for proof of age.

Jack Cummins is one of Scotland’s leading licensing lawyers. Every month he writes on licensing law and answers readers’ questions in SLTN.

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Jack Cummins is unable to enter into personal correspondence on readers’ questions. The advice offered in SLTN is published for information only. No responsibility for loss occasioned by persons acting or refraining from action as a result of material contained in SLTN can be accepted by the author or publisher.