Secret justice: Public barred from knowing why Brighton pub may lose licence

A secret panel of councillors held a hearing behind closed doors today that could strip a Brighton pub of its licence and throw people out of their jobs.

Sussex Police asked a Brighton and Hove City Council licensing panel to hold a hearing in private – and the panel agreed.

And despite the laws governing open justice, the council also withheld 200 pages of evidence, some relating to a criminal case in which the defendant has already been convicted, having pleaded guilty.

In other instances, the council and police have redacted details that might prejudice an active court case although, in this case, guilt has been admitted.

The police asked the council to review the premises licence for Molly Malone’s, in West Street, Brighton, saying that the premises were associated with serious disorder.

The review could lead to the pub’s licence being modified, suspended or revoked after a violent incident on Tuesday 6 July.

And though the secret hearing ended earlier today (Tuesday 3 August), the council has not yet made public the decision reached by the panel.

Yet details of the criminal case were made public at Brighton Magistrates’ Court last month when a Hove teenager, whose identity is protected by law, admitted carrying out a violent attack.

Sussex Police barrister Peter Savill said that other elements of the case were still active, although he did not make clear publicly exactly what they might be.

Mr Savill said: “There is an outstanding criminal matter. It is appropriate in the interests of justice for this hearing to take place in private so there is no question of jeopardising the ongoing criminal proceedings.

“I recognise that is difficult but that incident is written through the whole application for review and it may simply be more straightforward for the matter to be determined in private because that incident is at the forefront of the application.”

Barrister Sarah Clover, for Indigo Leisure, the owner of Molly Malone’s, said: “The default is for licensing hearings to be heard in public. I don’t see an unusual reason in this case for it not to be held in public.”

Green councillor Lizzie Deane, who chaired the panel, initially suggested splitting the hearing, so that matters were discussed in private only when absolutely essential – in line with local government law.

She said: “I am always very reluctant to hold these things in closed session unless absolutely necessary in the public interest.”

Councillor Deane was also concerned that the case involved a teenager whose identity could not be revealed because of a legal requirement.

Independent councillor Kate Knight said that she would like transparency but, mindful of what the police barrister described as an active case, she was persuaded to sit in secret session.

Conservative councillor Dee Simson said: “I want to see this go through as smoothly as possible. I don’t want to see it disjointed by going into public and out of public into private session.

“I would rather have the whole session either public or private – and it’s very clear from the information we have that we can’t do it all in public so I would follow the police recommendation.”

The council said: “The decision to go to part 2 (confidential session) was taken in accordance with the provisions in the Licensing Act Hearings Regulations 2005 and the council’s constitution.

“The panel considered whether to hear the case in public or go to part 2 (closed session) and the necessary resolution was passed in accordance with legal requirements before the panel went to the private session.

A teenager was convicted at Brighton Magistrates’ Court last month after pleading guilty to a violent attack at the pub

“The panel took into account the nature and sensitivities of the case, advice from the police and other relevant matters before coming to a decision on the basis of an assessment on the balance of public interest.”

The Licensing Act 2003 (Hearings) Regulations 2005 which govern the conduct of a licensing review state: “The hearing shall take place in public.

“The licensing authority may exclude the public from all or part of a hearing where it considers that the public interest in so doing outweighs the public interest in the hearing, or that part of the hearing, taking place in public.”

But a leading judgment in matters of open justice – known as the Guardian v Westminster Magistrates’ Court – states: “In a democracy, where power depends on the consent of the people governed, the answer must lie in the transparency of the legal process.

“The requirements of open justice apply to all tribunals exercising the judicial power of the state.”

  1. BAHTAG Reply

    Oh dear, oh dear – looks like we’re heading into an even greater waste of taxpayets money!

    A look at the accounts filed at Companies House shows that Indigo is a profitable local firm with nett assets running into several million pounds – so seemingly well able to carry the upfront expense of taking the City Council to court, if the Licencing Panel decision is adverse to Indigo.

    And yet, and yet; a few moments thought might show that the sensible action of our City Council shld hv been to tell Sussex Police to firstly await the outcome of the criminal proceedings said to be in train, before the Police’s application would be considered by a licencing panel, surely?

    And in the meantime? Simples, the strengthed Sussex Police just keep a close watch on Molly Malone’s. And since the Police already need to be present in numbers in West Street at the weekend keeping an eye on Molly Malone’s doesn’t sound like a great additional burden?

    Sadly, reading between the lines, this case does sound like a stitch-up by that secretive society with a Grand Lodge in Queens Road?

    The ‘manipulation of justice’ in England by the Police, the Courts, and by other compliant public bodies, seems to have become ever more unacceptable since our ‘New Dawn’ of citizens trying to stand-up for their reasonable rights grew out of the brave protests of the 1960s!

    And our City’s Licencing Panel was once the little-known star of what we want to believe should be our ‘Local Democracy.

    This was because the Councillors at an open Panel hearing were usually presented with an officers Report on an Application which generally just laid out the factual pros & cons, and left it to the Panel’s Councillors to use their local knowledge to reach an appropriate decision (in positive contrast to most Council committees where reports for decision are frequently ‘engineered’ by officers to mis-lead Councillors into voting for the decision desired by officers – which too frequently is a far from optimal decision! And worse still is the secret advance ‘lobbying’ of committee Chairpersons by senior officers, even up to the level of the Council’s chief executive!).

    And in those halcyon days of the Licencing Panel being the most democratic body on our Council the decisions on Applications were almost always issued on the day, at the end of the hearing, even if that meant the Panel sitting for many hours!

    And then came the Application from multi-national Uber, for a Private Hire licence!

    Given the preceding issues in London with Uber this was clearly an issue for us of significant legal complexity, which understandably took a week or so of the Council deliberating further internally, behind closed doors.

    But thereafter Council officers seem to have persuaded Licencing Panel councillors that all licencing decisions should only be issued after five working days, instead of on the day.

    Which inevitably conflicts with the Nolan principles of openness in decision-making by elected councillors – since in those 5 working-days who can say what secret internal influences might be brought to bear on the intentions of the Licencing Panel’s Councillors?

    So who can or will save us local residents from all our elected political parties who pledge to operate an ‘Open and Transparent Local Democracy’, but have colluded in letting council officers whittle away since 1997 at the democracy we started with back then – and almost always with no public consultation on those changes to our City’s Constitution (which still does not appear to be published as a single searchable online document!)?

    Only with many more truly independent local Councillors, such as the worthy Coun. Bridget Fishleigh, it seems?

  2. roy pennington Reply

    good report: it is a complex issue not helped by making the process secret = the law allows justice to be “disjointed by going into public and out of public into private session” and it is often used for proceedings like this and there was little evidence that justified closing the doors. It was Wednesbury unreasonable and disproportional to do so.

  3. Sam Reply

    There used to be a Roy Pennington on the Licensing Committee.
    It’s hard to see how a disjointed discussion could possibly legally justify sitting in secret, especially given the remarks made by the pub company’s barrister. What have the police and councillors got to hide?
    The magistrates don’t sit in secret. All these sorts of hearings use to be in the magistrates court and held openly. Why is it politicians and council officers think they are above the law?
    If a clever barrister like Mr Savile isn’t capable of navigating the legal challenges of a case involving a youth, what’s he doing taking money from clients!?!
    And if the youth’s name has to be kept secret by law, this would be one of those rare occasions when it’s acceptable to blank out a name, something the council seems all-too-capable of doing in other reports etc when it really shouldn’t.
    Something’s amiss at this council and the increasing level of secrecy is a sure sign. Keep up the good work uncovering the cover-ups.

  4. Mark Reply

    There ought to be an inquiry and the three councillors should be banned from sitting on these panels in future until they understand their responsibilities to the public. The review itself should be held again, openly, so the public can understand what evidence there was for and against, as well as the reasons for any sanction. This is nothing short of an abuse of power by those who should know better!

  5. Leggie Reply

    Totally agree with Roy and Sam. Wrong decision. Plenty of workarounds exist. Disproportionate and definitely unreasonable. It’s scandalous.

  6. dree Reply

    What a disgraceful decision. Hard to believe even a half intelligent bunch couldn’t have managed to deal with most or all of this in public and go into closed session only if absolutely necessary, rather than because it’s more convenient.

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