Post Covid: alcohol and the night time economy in the Sydney CBD

Sydney’s CBD has been bleak and empty the past few months, especially at night, but coronavirus restrictions in NSW are slowly easing.

From 1 June, pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants can seat up to 50 customers (instead of the previous 10), provided businesses ensure social distancing of one person per 4 square metres, and no bookings of more than 10 persons.

If restrictions lift further, venues will likely begin to extend hours of opening and to kick start Sydney’s night time economy.

It’s worth noting the changes to service of alcohol laws introduced for the Sydney CBD late last year.

Complex changes to service of alcohol laws affecting licensed venues in inner Sydney were introduced following a series of alcohol-fuelled “one punch” attacks around 2013-14.

These controls included “lock-out” laws preventing patrons from entering licensed premises after 1.30am, restrictions on the use of glasses and on sales of certain kinds of alcoholic beverages after midnight, and an end to all liquor service at 3am.

Other controls included risk-based licence fees, and additional security and public safety measures, such as RSA (responsible service of alcohol) marshals, and mandatory ID scanning for certain venues.

See here for a review of those laws, and here for subsequent changes made following an independent review in 2016 conducted by former High Court Justice the Hon. Ian Callinan AC.

Opponents of Sydney’s lock-out laws have argued that these controls destroyed Sydney’s night life (and night-time economy).

In May 2019, the NSW Parliament established a Joint Select Committee to inquire into Sydney’s Night Time Economy, including the appropriate balance between community safety and health outcomes.

The Final Report recommended a number of changes that were subsequently implemented through the Liquor Amendment (Night Time Economy) Regulation 2019 (NSW).

Lock-out laws

The “lock-out” laws originally applied to prescribed “precincts” in the Sydney central business district, and Kings Cross.

During the lock-out period, new patrons were prohibited from entering the premises [hence “lock-out”], although patrons could remain on the premises, and leave at any time: see Liquor Regulation 2018 (as amended), s 89(4).

Section 89, as amended, retains the definition of a “lock-out period” to mean the time after 1.30am until 5am the next day.

The lock-out period has not changed, but the changes introduced in December 2019 provide that the lock-out law only applies to the Kings Cross precinct, not the CDB entertainment precinct: see here.

In Kings Cross, the lock-out restrictions continue to apply to hotels, clubs, licenced public entertainment venues and karaoke bars, and high risk venues (defined in s 116B(2) of the Act to mean hotels with patron capacity of more than 120 people that regularly operate after midnight), as well as “level 2” licensed premises that have had previous incidents of violence.

On the other hand, the Regulations allow a Kings Cross liquor licensee to seek an exemption to both the lock-out and liquor sales cessation restrictions: see here.

Liquor sales cessation periods

Section 90 of the amended Regulations deals with the “liquor sales cessation period”.

During a liquor sales cessation period, hotels, clubs, licensed entertainment venues and karaoke bars, high risk venues, and venues to which a level 1 or level 2 licence applies – must not sell or supply liquor: see s 90(3).

The December 2019 amendments have not changed the liquor sales cessation period for the Kings Cross precinct: it begins at 3am and continues to 5am.

For premises in the Sydney CBD Entertainment precinct, s 90 states that if the premises are declared to be subject to a level 1 licence (and there are currently no such licenses), then the same liquor sales cessation period applies: service of alcohol must stop at 3am.

But otherwise, service of alcohol can continue on to 3.30am.

Wind-back of other controls

Section 91 of the Regulations sets out additional controls that apply to after midnight trading (the “general late trading period”) in hotels, clubs, licensed public entertainment venues and karaoke bars in Kings Cross.

These additional controls also apply to premises in other precincts which are declared to be premises to which this clause applies – due to a history of alcohol-related violence, or violence causing serious injury.

These additional controls include the requirement that drinks cannot be sold in glasses and glasses must be removed from patrons.

So, unless they are a declared premises, licensed premises in the CBD don’t have to remove glasses after midnight.  This is another of the wind-backs.

Section 92 provides that, in addition, shots and other drinks containing more than 5% alcohol (but with the exception of cocktails) cannot be sold after midnight.

However, following the December 2019 amendments, this control no longer applies in the Sydney CBD.

On the other hand, controls designed to slow the rate of alcohol consumption (and sober patrons up) remain.  Between 2am and the beginning of the liquor sales cessation period, no more than 2 alcoholic drinks can be sold or supplied to a person, and no more than 4 drinks during the general late trading period (after midnight).

These controls have not been wound back: see s 92(5)-(6).  However, they do not apply to “small bars”, which may apply for extended trading authorisation to trade after midnight.

They illustrate the intent of the legislation, which is to reduce levels of alcohol consumption in large venues, and to encourage a small bar culture. Small bars can now cater to up to 120 patrons (s 39).

Venues in the CBD precinct are no longer required to have an RSA marshal supervise the responsible service of alcohol during the midnight to 3.30am period on weekends and after public holidays, unless they are a declared premises to which this requirement applies (Regs s 94).

On the other hand, the requirement for a “round the clock incident register” continues in prescribed precincts (s 96), and the requirement for CCTV in premises within the Kings Cross precinct remains (s 95).

The ban on motorcycle gang members wearing clothing or symbols that identify their club remains in both the CBD and Kings Cross precincts (s. 98).

The NSW Parliament’s Joint Select Committee found that “due to the historical nature of Kings Cross, venue density and the small size of the precinct, there is a high risk that if the 2014 laws were removed, violence would increase and the rate of assaults would begin to rise again” (p vi).  However, these controls will be reviewed within 12 months.

A final, significant change introduced in December 2019 was the extension of trading hours for take-away bottle shops.  The amended regulations now give an exemption until midnight for premises that are otherwise authorised to trade to 10pm: Regs s. 117.

Did the lock-out laws work?

In August 2019, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research studied non-domestic assaults in the 62 months since the lock-out laws were introduced.

They found that non-domestic assaults were reduced by 53% in the Kings Cross precinct, and were reduced by 4% in the CBD precinct.

There was some displacement of violence to surrounding areas.

For example, non-domestic assaults rose by 18% in the proximate displacement area of Pyrmont, Ultimo, Chippendale, Surry Hills, Elizabeth Bay, and the Star City area.

It rose by more 30% in the non-proximate displacement area that included the suburbs of Bondi Beach, Coogee, Double Bay and Newtown.

But overall, the displacement was less than the reductions in violence that these laws achieved, meaning that overall violence was reduced by 13.3%.

Hospital admission statistics are another way of gauging the success of alcohol control laws in the inner city.

A study published in 2018 by The Medical Journal of Australia reported a 10% reduction in the number of violence-related fractures and a 7% reduction in drug and alcohol-related fractures presenting at St Vincent’s hospital.

These reductions suggest that changes to alcohol trading hours – including lock-outs, liquor sales cessation periods, and bans on late-night take-away liquor sales – were part of an effective package for reducing alcohol-related violence.

As with tobacco controls, it can be difficult to definitively quantify the specific contribution of each measure to the reduction in violent assaults.  It is the overall impact of the package of controls that speaks.

At the time the package of lock-out laws were introduced – after multiple, sickening, unprovoked attacks – there was a political imperative for action.

The Government had to do something, and it did.

It’s now five years later.  What strikes me is that the wind-backs introduced in December are relatively modest.

It remains to be seen what impact they will have on incidents of alcohol-related violence, and whether, in particular, they have created incentives for the kind of cultural change that is needed to ensure a safe, but late-night economy in Sydney.

Are you interested in studying health law?  Sydney Law School offers a Masters and Graduate Diploma in this area.  You can start in either the March, or July/August semester.  Click here, or here, for more information.

 

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