Quite a bar tab: whisky lobby could face £1.2m court costs

Sunday Herald - - NEWS - BY PAUL HUTCHEON

THE Scotch Whisky As­so­ci­a­tion, the trade body be­hind the four-year le­gal bid to block the gov­ern­ment pol­icy on min­i­mum pric­ing of al­co­hol, stands to lose up to £1.2 mil­lion if the court ac­tion is un­suc­cess­ful.

The sum is just a tiny pro­por­tion of the multi-bil­lion-pound prof­its en­joyed by mem­bers of the SWA.

Ali­son Dou­glas, chief ex­ec­u­tive of char­ity Al­co­hol Fo­cus Scot­land, said the money was a “drop in the ocean” com­pared to the “costs of al­co­hol harm”. In 2012, MSPs passed leg­is­la­tion to set a min­i­mum price per unit of al­co­hol, a pol­icy SNP min­is­ters be­lieve would tar­get heavy drinkers and cheap, high-strength prod­ucts.

Un­der the leg­is­la­tion, a cheap bot­tle of wine would be around £4.69 and a bot­tle of whisky could not be sold for less than £14. The SWA, which rep­re­sents the drinks gi­ants, in­sisted the pol­icy breached Euro­pean law.

In 2013, the trade body un­suc­cess­fully chal­lenged min­i­mum pric­ing in the Court of Ses­sion, after which an ap­peal was lodged with the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice.

The ECJ de­ter­mined that the plan could break EU law but the judges con­cluded it was “ul­ti­mately for the na­tional court to de­ter­mine”.

A Scot­tish court last year backed the Gov­ern­ment pol­icy for a se­cond time, but the SWA was al­lowed to chal­lenge the rul­ing in the Supreme Court. A de­ci­sion is ex­pected soon.

The high-stakes le­gal bid will have a cost for which­ever side loses a marathon case that has been heard in Ed­in­burgh, Lon­don and Lux­em­bourg.

In a sec­tion marked “con­tin­gent li­a­bil­i­ties”, the last page of the SWA ac­counts from 2016 state: “If in the event that the ap­peal is un­suc­cess­ful the As­so­ci­a­tion would in­cur es­ti­mated costs of be­tween £900,000 and £1.2m.”

Dou­glas said: “The po­ten­tial cost to the SWA of the le­gal chal­lenge it has led against the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment is but a drop in the ocean in com­par­i­son to the costs of al­co­hol harm in Scot­land. Mir­ror­ing the tactics of the tobacco in­dus­try, they have sought to de­lay im­ple­men­ta­tion of this life-sav­ing mea­sure in or­der to pro­tect the prof­its of their share­hold­ers.”

SNP MSP Ma­ree Todd said: “The cost to Scot­land of prob­lem drink­ing is not counted in pounds and pence but in lost lives and hu­man mis­ery – and the longer the SWA drag out this court case the more dam­age will be done to peo­ple’s lives.”

A spokesman for the SWA said: “The state­ment in our ac­counts re­flects ex­ter­nal le­gal coun­sel’s es­ti­mate of po­ten­tial costs faced by a los­ing party to the case, with the es­ti­mate cov­er­ing costs at the Scot­tish, UK, and Euro­pean lev­els since the re­view process be­gan in 2012.”

The po­ten­tial cost to the SWA is but a drop in the ocean in com­par­i­son to the costs of al­co­hol harm in Scot­land

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