UK: Greene King faces down pensioners in pub row
UK brewer Greene King has demanded four local pensioners contribute to its legal costs after they failed to block an extension to the opening hours of a local Greene King pub.
The brewer and pub group operator is seeking up to GBP29,000 (US$55,000) in legal costs from the residents after fighting off opposition to open the Dog and Partridge, in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, until 1am.
The row is notable as the UK's Licensing Act, introduced last year, sought to calm fears that late-night opening would lead to increased binge drinking by giving local residents the right to appeal against an extension to opening hours.
However, the pensioners lost an appeal to the local council and to the local magistrates' court, although the latter ruled they would not have to pay costs. Greene King, which in the year to 30 April made profits of GBP119.6m, plans to take the residents to the UK High Court to recover its legal costs.
Sarah Clover, a lawyer for the two elderly couples, said: "Some of the costs bandied around the magistrates courts can be quite astronomical. It's simply not feasible to ask residents to take on the risk."
She told the Daily Mail newspaper: "But if they don't pursue their rights, then a big part of the empowerment the Licensing Act was supposed to give them is rendered null and void."
A spokesman for the UK's Department for Culture Media and Sport refused to comment on the case as it is "a matter for the courts". However, he told just-drinks today (20 November) that any residents with "reasonable grounds for appeal" should not be penalised.
He added: "The magistrates' association and the justices' clerks society have advised that awarding costs for a licensing appeal should be an exception and not a rule."
Greene King said it had listened to the concerns of local residents during its bid to extend the pub's opening hours but insisted that the pensioners knew there could be "cost implications" if they lost their appeal.
The company said its move to recoup its legal costs was not a direct challenge to the pensioners. "We are not challenging the four people who brought the appeal but the magistrate's decision not to award costs," the company said.
"We want to establish the principle that people should have to contribute to the costs of cases being heard a second time round. Otherwise, if all objectors could appeal without ever having to pay any costs, there is a real threat to the thousands of community pubs across the country. We will not be looking to recover more than the appellants can easily afford to pay."
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