Supreme Court backs minimum pricing for alcohol in Scotland

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Nov 16, 2017
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The Scottish government is expected to set the price of alcohol at 50p per unit. Drinks industry bodies had argued the measure was disproportionate

Times photographer James Glossop

Scotland will be the first country in the world to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol after the UK’s highest court backed the controversial measure.

In what ministers in Edinburgh hailed as a “historic and far-reaching judgment”, seven Supreme Court justices dismissed a challenge brought against minimum unit pricing by the Scotch Whisky Association. The decision clears the way for the Scottish government to bring in the policy more than five years after the devolved parliament passed legislation.

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, said: “Absolutely delighted that minimum pricing has been upheld by the Supreme Court. This has been a long road, and no doubt the policy will continue to have its critics, but it is a bold and necessary move to improve public health.”

The whisky association had challenged the legislation after it was passed, taking the case to the highest court in Scotland and the European Court of Justice before it ended up at the UK’s highest court. During a hearing in July the judges heard argument from the organisation that 50p minimum unit pricing was “disproportionate” and illegal under European law.

But the Supreme Court – led by its recently retired president, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, and its current president, Baroness Hale of Richmond, along with Lord Mance, Lord Kerr of Tonaghmore, Lord Sumption, Lord Reed and Lord Hodge – unanimously ruled that there was no breach of EU law and that minimum pricing “is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”.

Lawyers said that attention would now turn to other parts of the UK. “It will be interesting to see how the government reacts to this in England and Wales,” Tiffany Cloynes, a partner at the national law firm Geldards, said. “And whether similar measures are introduced or whether this is an area of divergence.”

She pointed out that minimum pricing is being debated by the Welsh Assembly after the introduction of a bill last month which proposes a minimum price calculated by reference to the strength of the alcohol, its volume and minimum unit price. That legislation would enable Welsh ministers to specify the minimum unit price and would establish a local authority-led enforcement regime with powers of entry, power to prosecute and power to issue fixed penalty notices.

In England there is no minimum pricing or white paper considering the issue. However, a House of Lords select committee has said that if Scotland’s scheme is effective the whole of the UK should follow suit.

Appearing for the Scotch Whisky Association at the Supreme Court were Aidan O’Neill, QC, of Ampersand Advocates in Edinburgh, and Morag Ross, QC, of Axiom Advocates, also in Edinburgh. They were instructed by the Edinburgh law firm Brodies.

James Wolffe, QC, the lord advocate, was joined by Gerry Moynihan, QC, of Axiom Advocates, for the respondents; they were instructed by the Scottish government legal directorate.

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