Lai See
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 1:10am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 February, 2014, 1:10am

Judge Zervos gives liquor board a poke in the eye


Howard Winn has been with the South China Morning Post for two and half years after previous stints as business editor and deputy editor of The Standard, and business editor of Asia Times. His writing has also been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He writes the Lai See column which focuses on the lighter side of business.

A few months ago, we suggested the Liquor Licensing Board was getting out of control in the way it dealt with bars. In that piece, we mentioned that the Coast bar in Soho had its licence withdrawn by the liquor board, a decision which was upheld by the Municipal Services Appeals Board, and had subsequently applied to the High Court for leave to appeal for judicial review before the recently appointed Mr Justice Kevin Zervos. This was granted and the bar was granted an interim licence.

However, shortly afterwards, the applicants discontinued the case and closed the bar last month because of the "catastrophic effect" on its business due to the loss of its liquor licence, court documents say. The liquor board then applied for costs. The Coast owners opposed and also asked for costs.

In an interesting decision this week, in what was a poke in the eye for the board, which strongly contested the hearing, Zervos found in favour of the Coast owners. At the previous hearing on Coast's bid for a judicial review, Zervos had concluded that it had a "strong" case. He accepted Coast's argument that the municipal appeals board "took into account irrelevant considerations by placing emphasis on unsubstantiated complaints" and that "the way the [liquor licensing board] considered and viewed the complaints in relation to the premises was inconsistent and unfair".

The judge also drew attention to the curious procedure whereby a bar would successfully appeal to the municipal board against conditions of the licence imposed by the liquor board, only for the conditions to be reimposed when the licence came up for renewal.

The municipal board had argued that the Coast licensee "was not a fit and proper person to hold a liquor licence" and that it was therefore not in the public interest to grant one. Zervos accepted the Coast's argument that "the nature and degree of the reasoning and analysis was inadequate with respect to the [municipal board's] key conclusion".

In his recent decision, Zervos said: "The applicants have been back and forth before the [liquor licensing board and municipal appeals board] in relation to the liquor licence conditions and, I must say, in circumstances that, in my view, have acted unfairly and unreasonably on the applicants."

In his conclusion, he said there were situations when there was no real winner or loser and resulted in no order as to costs. "But there may be a situation like the present, when someone has given up when they had a good arguable claim, even one that was likely to win. The question is what does justice demand in such a situation?" His response was to exercise his discretion in favour of the Coast owners, "on the basis that it was tolerably clear to me that the applicants would have won their claim".

However, the pity of it is that despite winning its legal skirmishes with the liquor board, Coast was so badly hurt by the action of the board, which in the opinion of the court was unreasonable and unfair, that it had to close the business.

Hopefully, the board will learn something from this and stop being so cavalier in the conditions it imposes on bars and its capricious treatment of them. What particularly irks them is that time and again the board takes at face value "unsubstantiated complaints" in imposing conditions on bars or not renewing their licences.


Hilton bans shark's fin

Hotel group Hilton Worldwide yesterday announced a global ban on the serving of shark's fin soup in all of the hotels it manages. This includes the Conrad in Hong Kong, which had stopped serving shark's fin some years ago.

Hilton said the ban first took effect in its hotels in Southeast Asia in September last year, and then China this month. The policy will apply to Japan in April.

A number of other hotels in Hong Kong do not serve shark's fin. These include the Peninsula, the Shangri-La, and Sino Hotels.

The World Wildlife Fund says that about 115 of the biggest banquet providers in Hong Kong participate in its alternative shark-free menu programme in which they offer menus which exclude shark's fin. However, if specifically requested, shark's fin will be provided. The fund sees this as a transitional step by venues before taking the next step of banning it outright.


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