Should New Zealand make greater use of lockout laws to reduce alcohol harm?
Lockout laws may be the next weapon in New Zealand’s arsenal against late-night alcohol-fuelled violence. In March this year, doctors and the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine called for their implementation, mainly to reduce the late-night violence occurring in emergency departments, often directed at staff. But just how effective are they?
Lockout laws have had a mixed run across the Tasman, and as we shall see, there are a number of good arguments both for and against their use.
The laws are usually applied to a city, district or precinct by local or federal authorities. They stipulate that, come a specified time in the wee small hours, every venue selling alcohol must refuse entry to new patrons, regardless of whether their licences allow them to continue selling alcohol.
They’re designed to pour cold water all over the typical causes of alcohol- fuelled street violence, such as large gangs of rowdy pub crawlers and pissed and pissed-off trouble makers moving to a new bar because they’ve been ‘asked to leave’ the last one. Basically, if you’re not in a venue when the lockout starts, you might as well just go home where you’re much less likely to start brawling.
As well as the above, proponents argue they provide Police with specific times at which to target street violence and protect peaceful patrons who want to quietly hang out without being disturbed by a new influx of rowdy revellers.
However, opponents say lockouts are just one more example of the law-abiding majority having their civil liberties and freedom of choice spoiled by a small minority. A plethora of venues is what makes most great cities great, and lockouts interfere with people’s ability to move around and experience everything on offer. They say lockouts hurt businesses because new customers can’t come in, and people not being free to move around means audiences at gigs can dwindle.
But perhaps the most powerful argument against lockouts is that they do result in a lot of people being out on the street at the same time, many all fired up but with nowhere to go – and that can be a recipe for the very violence we’re trying to avoid.
Melbourne was one of the first Australian cities to experiment with lockouts as a three- month trial. From June to September 2008, the Victorian Labor Government enforced the ‘2am Lockout’ initiative to help curb alcohol- related inner-city violence in the state’s capital. Licensees who breached the lockout by allowing patrons in (or back in) between 2am and 7am could be fined up to $6,800. Interestingly, of the 457 premises planned to be bound by the lockout, 115 were granted exemptions.
Basically, if you’re not in a venue when the lockout starts, you might as well just go home where you’re much less likely to start brawling.
Surveys of venues and patrons were conducted after the trial ended, and both indicated the lockout had had little or no effect. In fact, violent crime went up in Melbourne during the period – most likely helped by the fact that intoxicated patrons did have 115 other places to go to in the city, and all of them were probably going to them at around 2am.
The Victorian Government abandoned the plan as a bad idea and instead gave greater powers to the Director of Liquor Licensing to shut down problem areas if need be, such as a venue, a street or an area.
However, things went a little better in Newcastle, where, also in 2008, the New South Wales Liquor Administration Board required 14 pubs in the CBD to close by 3am with a 1.30am lockout. Alongside the lockouts, a package of other preventive measures were introduced. The moves followed complaints from the community and from Police about late-night violence and disorder.
The fact that the nearby similar city of Hamilton was not included in the decision provides a good opportunity for comparison. Assaults in Newcastle dropped a third in the 18 months following the restrictions. They’ve
continued to decline over time and are now half what they were in 2008. Meanwhile, in Hamilton, there has been little or no improvement despite the introduction of a 1am weekend lockout there in 2010.
Sydney introduced inner-city 1.30am lockout laws in early 2014, largely in response to public pressure after the ‘one-hit deaths’ of Thomas Kelly in 2012 and Daniel Christie in 2013. These were both incidents of alcohol-fuelled street violence, although both deaths occurred much earlier in the evening than could have been prevented by lockout laws (at about 9 or 10pm).
But Sydney took a step forward from the Newcastle experiment. Rather than requiring venues to close at 3am, the New South Wales Government introduced ‘last drinks’ laws merely requiring venues to stop selling alcohol at that time. The argument was that, if patrons want to eat, listen to music or watch a striptease after 3am, without drinking more alcohol, they should be allowed to do so. And of course, not requiring patrons to leave at a set time helped stagger when people would be stumbling out onto the streets.
It seems to have worked well. There has been a reported 40 percent decline in overall assaults since the lockouts and a 20 percent decline in the Sydney CBD. Independent evaluations have shown large reductions in Police apprehensions for assault and emergency department presentations for alcohol-related injuries.
The latest to introduce late-night liquor laws, including lockouts, has been Queensland. There, the State Parliament voted in a series of measures in February 2016 that have taken things yet another step or two forward. From 1 July 2016, all Queensland pubs and clubs will have to call last drinks at 2am or at 3am in party precincts. Shots will be banned after midnight, and there will be no new approvals for bottle shops to trade past 10pm – although existing approvals will remain.
Proponents argue this is in the public interest because the laws apply state-wide, meaning people in Queensland’s smaller centres can enjoy the same benefits as those living in bigger cities and things are the same wherever you go.
Lockouts are just one more example of the law-abiding majority having their civil liberties and freedom of choice spoiled by a small minority.
From 1 February 2017, 1am lockouts will be rolled out in 15 ‘Safe Night Precincts’. These will be designated areas (including Brisbane and many other CBDs) that will be managed by local boards to establish safer and better night-out experiences for patrons. These will really be something to watch.
But what’s interesting is that lockouts are not included at all in the first tranche of measures, and even when they are applied six months or so later, they will only be used in the Safe Night Precincts. This appears to continue the trend that, as thinking around how to control late-night alcohol-related violence in Australia has evolved, lockouts have featured less and less prominently – and that their effectiveness, especially as a sole measure, is in question.
The famous Law Commission report that led eventually to New Zealand’s Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 recommended ‘one-way door’ policies (our wording for lockouts) be mandatory for all on-licences open after 2am as a harm-reduction measure. The Commission noted that these had been implemented in Australia with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Section 50 of the Act goes some way to accepting the Commission’s argument. Territorial authorities are allowed to implement one-way door restrictions either as a discretionary licence condition or to an entire district or area as part of their Local Alcohol Policy.
A one-way door policy was implemented in Christchurch from October 2006 to March 2007 as part of the Christchurch Central Business District Alcohol Accord. It was voluntary and applied only on Thursday through to Saturday nights after 4am. A subsequent evaluation by the Alcohol Advisory Council (ALAC) found that, while there had been some reduction in offences on Saturday (and oddly Sunday) nights, the overall goal of a 10 percent reduction in alcohol-related crime was not met. It’s important to note that Police also increased their presence in the central city as part of the Accord, which may have accounted for the reduction in offences.
Whangarei District Council (WDC) was the first to introduce a mandatory one-way door policy across its central business district from 7 April 2015. The policy covers 15 licensed premises and is in effect between 1am and closing time at 3am.
WDC Regulatory Services Manager Grant Couchman says that, after a year, Council and Police have both seen encouraging signs of a safer community.
“Licensees also seem to have embraced the policy, with their initial comments indicating they are getting better-quality customers late at night,” he said.
WDC’s one-way door policy operates under the authority of the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority, which has made it clear that it is a “precautionary or trial measure” and that WDC must do an evidence-based evaluation as to whether it is working effectively. Couchman says this evaluation is currently under way.
While the evaluation will undoubtedly contribute to our understanding of how well such policies could work in New Zealand, we will probably need a few more councils to implement and evaluate them before we can know for sure.
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