Covid-19 restrictions have seen a booming trade in the online sale of alcohol following the protracted closure of pubs, restaurants and hotels.
The majority of alcohol sold in Ireland since March 2020 has been sold for consumption at home. The current licensing regime which includes over 80 statutes and 115 pieces of separate legislation relating to the sale and consumption of alcohol contains no specific provisions relating to online sales.
The “dial a drink” phenomenon saw significant growth during the course of 2020 and 2021 which is likely to continue into the future. From a health and social point of view, the unregulated online sale of alcohol has led to growing concerns on the relative ease of purchasing alcohol by underage persons and that alcohol is one of the factors behind an increase in domestic abuse cases.
Whilst online sales of alcohol now require specific statutory regulation, this is part of a larger need for a full review and codification of alcohol law in Ireland. The foundation act for alcohol licensing law is The Licensing (Ireland) Act 1833 and the most recent statues are the Intoxicating Liquor (Amendment) Act and Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries and Distilleries) Act, both of which were enacted in 2018. There are potential benefits in the codification of the law relating to the sale and consumption of alcohol which include clarity, accessibility and the potential reduction in administration costs.
In Ireland, unlike the UK, a license for the sale of alcohol was not seen as an entitlement or a purely commercial activity but rather something which required the sanction of the Court in most cases, with specific reference to the character of the applicant and suitability of the premises with input from the Gardai and Fire Officer. The current range of alcohol on licences simply does not address how online sales of alcohol are to take place.
Irish Community Action on Alcohol is currently liaising with experienced practitioners in licensing law to draft regulations which it is hoped will be considered and enacted by the government and dealing with the following specific matters relating to the online sale of alcohol –
- Delivery – the sale of alcohol to take place where the license is held.
- That the purchaser is clearly identified and ideally that any alcohol purchased should be delivered to an identified purchaser only rather than any third party.
- That an age verification system should be put in place at the time of sale to verify the identify and age of the purchaser at the completion of the sale with further age verification at delivery as required. There should be minimum standards for age verification in any regulations.
- There should be a prohibition against the delivery of alcohol to intoxicated persons. Some common sense will be required around this.
- The deliverer of alcohol purchased online should be a clearly identified agent of the license holder who should also comply with any regulations.
- The hours of delivery should be consistent with current or amended permitted hours of license holders. At the moment there is no absolute clarity on a cut off time when alcohol cannot be sold online.
- Delivery should be to a defined address only, rather than to a public place.
- There should be an obligation to maintain detailed written records on both the licensee and its delivery agent including the date, quantity, name, date of birth, address and time of despatch/delivery together with some indication of how the identity of the purchaser was ascertained, all of which should be retained for a specific minimum time and available for inspection.
- There are clearly data protection issues around the retention of such data which may need to be legislated for.
In addition to the above, it would also be advisable to have the potential for a delivery prohibition order for an offence against the licensing law and regulations governing the online sale of alcohol.
The current law relating to the off licence sale of alcohol is simply inadequate and never designed for online sales. The events since March 2020 simply highlighted weaknesses in the current legislation regarding the sale and consumption of alcohol and reinforced the argument that a full and considered review and codification of alcohol law is required and should be prioritised. The Law Reform Commission has identified the law relating to the sale of alcohol as an area which will be suitable for codification and it is hoped that such a process can be advanced but in the interim, specific statutory regulation of the online sale of alcohol is required.