Scottish courts uphold minimum pricing plans

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A legal challenge from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and others against the Scottish Government’s plans to introduce minimum unit pricing for alcohol has been rejected by Scotland’s Court of Session.

Although the government has said the drinks industry ‘must now respect the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament’ and the ruling of the court, the association has not ruled out an appeal against the decision. ‘We will study the details of the judgement and consult our members before deciding on next steps, including any possible appeal to the UK Supreme Court,’ said SWA chief executive David Frost.

The ruling is the latest development in the long-running saga of the Scottish Government’s attempts to introduce the legislation. The Alcohol Minimum Pricing Bill – which set a 50p minimum price per unit as a condition of licence – was finally passed by the Scottish Parliament a year and a half after the previous Alcohol etc (Scotland) Bill had its provisions for minimum pricing removed (DDN, June 2012, page 12).

The subsequent four years, however, have seen the proposals referred to the European Court of Justice following the SWA’s legal challenge (DDN, June 2014, page 4). While the European court’s initial ruling was that minimum pricing could potentially breach EU free trade laws (DDN, October 2015, page 4), the case was then referred back to the Scottish courts for a final decision.

The Scottish government has called the court’s latest ruling ‘a landmark’ moment. ‘I am delighted that the highest court in Scotland has reinforced the initial judgment in our favour from 2013,’ said public health minister Aileen Campbell. ‘This follows the opinion of the European Court of Justice, which ruled that it was for our domestic courts to make a final judgment on the scheme. This policy was passed by the Scottish Parliament unopposed more than four years ago. In that time, the democratic will of our national parliament has been thwarted by this ongoing legal challenge, while many people in Scotland have continued to die from the effects of alcohol misuse.’

NHS Health Scotland said the decision was ‘an important day for public health in Scotland’, while Balance North East called it ‘a victory for democracy and for some of the most vulnerable people in society’. While SWA states that it continues to believe that MUP is a restriction on trade and that ‘there are more effective ways of tackling alcohol misuse’, a recent report from the Alcohol Health Alliance found that products like high-strength white ciders – typically drunk by dependent and underage drinkers – were now on sale for as little as 16p per unit. Cuts in alcohol taxes had allowed shops to sell alcohol at ‘rock bottom prices’, it warned.

Scotch Whisky Association and others v Lord Advocate and Advocate General for Scotland at www.scotland-judiciary.org.uk

Cheap alcohol: the price we pay at ahauk.org