Bias and inconsistent decisions raise concerns about authorities tasked with liquor licensing

Inconsistent decision making by those deciding who gets liquor licenses in our communities is prompting widespread concern about bias.

Health authorities say their advice is being ignored,  while community advocates point to what they believe are conflicts of interest.

In one case, a lawyer who sits on Auckland's District Licensing Committee has also been helping clients in other parts of the country get liquor permits.

Justice Minister told Newshub this week he wants a review of alcohol laws.  He's questioning whether changes designed to reduce harm have worked. 

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister backed his call. 

"Local councils were empowered in the last law change to try and better manage in line with their own communities desires. So we'll have to see if that's worked as intended," Jacinda Ardern said.  

Newshub's investigations have shown the answer to that is a resounding 'no, they haven't'. 

Part of the reason is because of concerns about decisions by District Licensing Committees. 

DLCs must make independent decisions about who can get a licence to serve or sell alcohol. 

But what if one of those commissioners making the decisions also supports people with interests in the alcohol industry? 

Maori warden David Ratu believes anything like that should be investigated.

Ratu helps oppose alcohol licences on behalf of his community and has laid a complaint about Auckland DLC Commissioner Katia Fraser. 

Fraser considers licence applications in Auckland - but at the same time represents clients with interests in the alcohol industry in Hamilton and Christchurch. 

For example, when Yankee Bourbon Limited in Christchurch was facing stiff opposition from locals, police and doctors, Fraser helped it to renew its bottle store licence. 

"Any sane person would look at that and say 'oh, my God. How can you be a commissioner and make decisions about the issuing of licences on one hand and then represent the applicant on the other?' That is so wrong," said Ratu.

The rules state: "A commissioner must not have involvement, or appearance of involvement, with the alcohol industry to the extent that there would be a bias or appearance of bias."

David Ratu's complaint to Auckland Council was dismissed. Auckland Regional Public Health had also complained about Katia Fraser. 

Then when Newshub started asking questions, the situation suddenly changed.

Auckland Council's Democracy Services general manager, Marguerite Delbet said in a statement that while Fraser only worked for stand-alone operators, [as opposed to liquor industry heavyweights].

"That member has agreed not to undertake any further work for applicants while serving on the Auckland DLC".

Fraser's situation is not an isolated one.

Lawyer Tanya Surry works on the Christchurch DLC - but also acts for alcohol industry clients in Queenstown and other centres. 

She told Newshub: "I do not consider a bias exists." 

And Napier DLC member Keith Price formerly owned three bars in Hawkes Bay but told Newshub: "If there was any issue in terms of a conflict, I would declare that."

But it's not just perceived conflicts on DLCs - there are concern arguments by doctors opposing applications to protect public health are simply not getting traction. 

In Auckland in the past year, 410 off licences or bottle stores got either new or renewed liquor licenses.  Fifty applications were opposed. Just three were declined.
In Auckland in the past year, 410 off licences or bottle stores got either new or renewed liquor licenses. Fifty applications were opposed. Just three were declined. Photo credit: Newshub.

Auckland Medical Officer of Health, Dr William Rainger believes public health views are being ignored.  "Public health arguments, which are evidence-based, are not being listened to." 

His counterpart in Canterbury Dr Alistair Humphrey shares his concerns. 

"I have confidence in our judiciary, in our judges, to make the right decisions. I don't share the same confidence in everybody in the District Licencing Committees." 

Auckland Council's alcohol licensing manager Peter Knight is in charge of ensuring bars and bottle stores in Auckland comply with the law. 

"I do think there are areas where there is an imbalance in the decision making," he says.

He also knows of cases where members of the public who have concerns have been told they don't qualify to make objections.

As an example, in the past year in Auckland, there were 410 applications for "off licences" or bottle stores - a mix of new licences or renewals of existing ones. 

Fifty applications were opposed and just three were declined - a number Knight says is "disappointing" considering the work he, his colleagues, other agencies and the public put into opposing applications, and the evidence of harm from alcohol still existing.

The figures above in relation to off licence applications in Auckland have been amended after Auckland Council clarified the data provided to Newshub.