HK Liquor Licensing Board Overview

In this overview, I’m going to talk about the Liquor Licensing Board in Hong Kong, how it functions, makes its decisions, and what you can expect in relation to a hearing or contested licence application matter. 

The Liquor Licensing Board itself is a structure that operates with 11 members. They meet in public but they can also meet privately. And they make their decisions based on a majority vote so it’s a show of hands process.

If your application is the subject of an ‘open hearing’ at the Liquor Licensing Board. That will be convened, usually on a Tuesday morning.

However, it does not always mean that every licence application will be the subject of an ‘open hearing.’

Liquor Licenses may be granted, and they may be renewed in private session and administratively. If they’re not particularly contentious, and even if there are some objections if they’re minor or meaningless, the Board may decide that an open hearing is not necessary.

Usually, open hearings are held when the Police or members of the public and might include politicians, who wish to be heard in respect of an application or have recommended or wished that stringent conditions or additional licensing conditions are applied to a licence. Or in the case of a renewal they want the Board to add conditions to an existing licence because of some type of problem or inconvenience that’s been caused, or non-compliance, say for example if the Police believe that the licence holder has been offending under the ordinance, they will ask for a hearing to be held for tighter control. 

What to expect at a Liquor Licensing Board hearing and how does it go?

The first stage is a notification will be issued to the applicant and that will be in respect to the hearing; taking place at a time that’s already been set. 

Usually, there’s about a ten-day notice period before the hearing itself. Within that notice (period) the Liquor Licensing Board will tell the applicant that there is a deadline for submitting materials and bundles. 

In other words, if you want to put evidence or information in front of the Board, it should be done in advance so that everybody has a copy of it. In fact, there are over 20 copies required to be furnished so there’s a need to write something up and copy it if you intend the Board to look at it. 

If you do not comply with this requirement, there could be problems at the Board hearing itself, because nobody will have had time to respond to your submissions, nobody will have had time to think about them or evaluate the materials. That should by rights apply to any objector as well. In other words, objectors to a licence or the Police should not be presenting materials at the Liquor Licensing Board hearing that have not been given to an applicant in advance.

However, it’s totally up to the Chairman of the hearing, together with his legal advisor (who is a government servant normally) to make a decision upon whether or not an applicant is allowed to submit extra materials at the hearing itself, or whether the Board will listen to or hear (or view) things like videotapes, recordings, photographs and the like from objectors or indeed from the Police that have not been given to an applicant in advance. 

This situation is sometimes quite unsatisfactory as it leaves an applicant open to an ambush by either objectors, politicians or even in fact the Police who have at times been seen to pull out additional information not referred to in a hearing, in response to an applicant, actually, while the hearing is going on.

However, as the Liquor Licensing Board doesn’t operate in a strictly legalistic sense, and it feels more often like a town hall meeting, this open flow to and fro, and lobbying by say politicians, applicants, Police Officers in the like, for the Board to accept their views, is just the way the mechanism currently works. I will not comment here on whether that’s desirable or not, but it is just a way that all views (hopefully) are able to be aired on all sides of an argument. Then the Board can go away and in private session, debate what to do based on what they’ve seen and heard. 

What are the key aspects of a hearing itself?

At the moment due to social distancing restrictions, the public is not actually permitted to attend Liquor Licensing Board hearings as observers so I’ll just give you a bit of insight as to what happens in the room (this will change with time).

The applicant will be invited to sit together with his legal advisors, possibly members of the supervision structure of the company or the firm that operates the premises in front of the Board, and the Police, together with any objectors and/or politicians (who) will sit to the left of the applicant’s team. 

To the right of the applicant’s team or the departmental staff from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and across the table (as it were) as it’s a room with a large round seating structure, are the members of the Liquor Licensing Board aligned to the left and right of the Chairman. 

The hearing will open with the Chairman asking for any declarations of interest. It’s important here to understand that the Liquor Licensing Board membership is by way of appointment, and such, is drawn from the legal community, the business community, social work areas, and a wide range of occupations and professions. It may well be the case that one of those members or more, may be somehow aligned with an applicant or indeed an objector, maybe a political party member of the same party, as a politician or a business competitor, or even in an extreme case possibly a shareholder in a business. 

Once declarations of interest are dealt with the hearing will commence with the Chairman, inviting the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to describe the premises. The government department will then describe its size, what it does, its general hours of operation that they are aware of and its licensed status or otherwise. The last one is in relation to the suitability of the premises, which I won’t go into here, but if it has a light refreshment licence, restaurant licence or it’s a club or the like, these bits of information will be provided. Together with the fact that it is currently licensed or perhaps provisionally licensed, or that there is no licence in issue as yet, but it is under review or application. 

The Chairman will then allow the objectors to the application to speak in order. 

Normally the Chairman will start off with the Police who may or may not have a position to state. However, in every circumstance that I’m aware of the Police will have announced their position before the hearing, it will be contained in a memo, and the applicant will have that in front of them, and the Police will simply read out, or in effect, read out the contents of the memo as to their position. It’s highly unlikely it will have changed between the hearing notice date and the hearing itself. 

The Chairman will then move along to objectors, they will be invited to speak, in turn, they should identify themselves not only by name but by status. There is very little reason for an objector in a public hearing to try and maintain a level of anonymity, and it’s highly relevant, of course, if they’re claiming to be a resident, where they actually live, in relation to the premises itself and they should state that, if not very specifically.

Each of those persons will then be allowed to speak and make their points. However, in a kind of linear fashion the Chairman’s practice at this time is to remind people that unless they have anything new to add, a second, third, fourth or fifth resident (or objector) should not be repeating what the previous residents have said. 

Once all the objectors’ views are heard, it is then the turn of the applicant. 

This structure may seem a little unfair. In other words, the person asking for something isn’t allowed to speak first. In fact, everybody who’s against them gets to go first and then they somehow are allowed to defend themselves and speak themselves. However, if you remember what I mentioned earlier, there is a submission date for putting in what the applicant says, in response to the hearing notice. 

Within that hearing notice the applicant will have been furnished with for example the Police memo and should have been given anything the objectors are going to say. So, the Board will logically have in front of it, the applicant’s position, already, in writing. 

The opportunity for the applicant to speak is an interesting one, the applicant can speak himself or herself, that’s the applicant for a liquor licence, the members of the company and or shareholders or owners can speak, and the representative on behalf of the applicants can also speak, that could be a lawyer. 

The important thing at this phase is that number one, the general position is restated, but there is no need for an applicant to read out a written submission to go into detail about everything they say if it’s been put before the Board already. It is also a good opportunity to meet any of the objections that have been voiced, especially if they’re not in the bundle or have not been said in advance, and there’s something new. Also, deciding who speaks to the Chairman or the Board itself is very important.

It may not be necessary for an applicant for a licence to speak for themselves if the legal representative can cover the points that are of concern. 

The reason for that is that there’s sometimes no real objection to the applicant themselves; they may well have been found fit and proper by the Police and there may not be any objection to them, and the objections may be more related to the premises itself.

Throughout this whole process, the members of the Board can ask questions. They can ask questions and the Police can ask questions of the objectors, and they can ask questions of the applicant or the representative. However, what normally happens is questions start to be asked after the applicant’s submissions are finished because that is the first phase of the hearing, complete.

Once all of what we would traditionally think of as perhaps the evidence is in, and has been heard by the members of the Board, then questioning can start of the various parties, the Chairman may have questions, members may have questions, and the responses are given to those members themselves directly.

There is no cross-examination of witnesses normally, in other words, an applicant doesn’t get to question a resident, no more than a resident can demand a reply from an applicant. Everything passes through the Chairman and he decides the order of the meeting. The Chairman is in control, even of questions by members, the Chairman will marshal those questions, order them, and organise them.

Experience has shown that very often hearings are subject to very little questioning of anybody. Once the position is clearly known the Board will not ask questions just for the sake of it. The members are quite businesslike, and they will be happy if everything that they need to know is in their hands, and they will simply call an end to the hearing. 

Some members may have questions for the applicant, and they may have follow-up questions for the Police, or even for objectors. 

Once that whole process has finished, and the members have no more queries, the Chairman will confirm that, and proceed to the ‘final round.’ 

The final round of the hearing is to go back to the Police and ask them if they have anything to add and that would be their opportunity to respond to, usually, what the applicant has said.

Then moving through to the objectors, whether or not they have any things that they would like to sum up. 

The final word, correctly, should go to the applicant who then gets to wrap up the matter and to re-stress what their position is in relation not only to their application but also any of the objections brought up by Police, residents, politicians or commentary on the views of any members that have been expressed during the hearing.

Once that’s totally concluded the Chairman will bring an end to the hearing, and thank all the participants who are then requested to leave the room. 

The Decision

The common practice is that the Board will issue its decision, published on its website at or before approximately 5 pm on the afternoon of the hearing itself. 

In the event that a hearing has taken place at 11 am in the morning and a licence has been granted, you will know that by 5 pm, and at that time you have permission to sell liquor. 

There are problems in that you will not be able to display a valid liquor licence immediately because obviously, you would need to get back to the offices the next day or the day after to pick up the licence and pay the fees. 

However, with effect from the decision of the Liquor Licensing Board granting a licensee permission to sell is active. So, logically, Tuesday night one can sell, if at 5 pm on Tuesday permission has been given for sales to take place. 

The decision of the Board itself can be printed and the administrative measures of issuing the physical licence kick in. Again, traditionally, the fees in relation to the licence, even if it’s provided a couple of days after the hearing are backdated to the first day of the validity of the licence. So, it will be a day or two earlier than the day the applicant is able to pick it up.

The licence will be granted for a term of one year, or such less a term as the Board has decided based upon what’s been heard during the hearing.

I will, in a separate podcast, refer to what an applicant can do if they are unhappy with the decision of the Liquor Licensing Board, and that will be covered in the section on appeals before the Municipal Services Appeals Board.

Link to Municipal Services Appeals Board

Any information contained in this overview should not be construed as legal advice and is not intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter.