Police do little to ease fears over policy of fining bar patrons

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 May, 2010, 12:00am

Police have failed to calm the controversy that has grown since they said patrons could face a fine of HK$2,000 if they were caught drinking in unlicensed bars.

It alarmed many drinkers who complained that they did not know a law existed where they could be prosecuted as well as the owners, and that no one could tell whether a bar was illegal.

Last month, two pub operators were arrested for selling alcohol without licences and 13 patrons are helping police with their investigation. The drinkers each faced a fine of HK$2,000 if convicted, police said. Police raided two upstairs pubs on Dundas Street in Mong Kok at 9pm following a tip-off. Eight men and five women, aged between 16 and 24, were taken in for questioning.

Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Chan Wai-keung said it was unfair and unreasonable to prosecute drinkers who were unaware of the illegality of upstairs bars. The onus to get rid of these illegal bars should be on the police, he said.

A jargon-filled police statement in response to the matter did little to clarify the rationale for prosecuting patrons of unlicensed pubs.

'As a law enforcement agency, the police enforce what the law stipulates in accordance with the Dutiable Commodities Ordinance and the Dutiable Commodities (Liquor) Regulations,' the police statement read. 'Each case stands on its own facts and any prosecution will be evidence-based. Where necessary the Department of Justice will be approached for advice. In taking enforcement action against any unlicensed liquor premises, the police are committed to ensuring that public interests are protected.'

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department was not very instructive either when it came to explaining how customers could work out whether the bar they were drinking in was illegal.

'According to Regulation 26A of the Dutiable Commodities (Liquor) Regulations, a person holding a liquor licence must display his full name and the nature and number of his licence in legible and permanent marking in letters and characters at least 75mm high in a conspicuous place on his licensed premises, whereas a person who is not the holder of a liquor licence is not allowed to do so,' the department said.

'It is also a standard licensing condition that the licensee shall exhibit and keep exhibited a notice denoting its licensed status provided by the Liquor Licensing Board at the main entrance of the premises.'

Councillor Chan has been vocal in his opposition to the stance taken by the police and wants the law changed once and for all.

'Police are using the threat of prosecution towards customers in illegal bars as a deterrent, but it won't stop illegal bars operating in Hong Kong. It's the people who run these bars that should be targeted,' Chan said.

'How can people tell if a bar is licensed or unlicensed? They should not be held responsible.'

Chan said his biggest worry was that if the police continued to enforce this law, innocent people would continue to be prosecuted.

He also said that the government should be more committed to publicising the law and, above all, a list of licensed liquor premises. He said this would enable the public to 'spot the illegal upstairs bars and give tip-offs to the police'.

'There need to be changes. The World Cup will be on television soon, so these bars will be packed full of people,' Chan said.

'Many will not even be aware that they'll be watching these games in an illegal establishment.'

Bar tab

The fine police say drinkers in illegal bars will have to pay, in HK$: $2,000