SIXTEEN prosecutions for selling booze to underage drinkers have been abandoned by council bosses following a landmark York case.

Trading Standards chiefs decided not to pursue the owners of bars, pubs, hotels and restaurants after a district judge said they were not liable.

A top licensing lawyer claimed today that City of Council York Council had wasted "thousands of pounds" in taxpayers' money in trying to launch the prosecutions.

But a council spokeswoman insisted it had withdrawn from the prosecutions to avoid wasting money and said prosecutions were still being pursued against individuals at some of the premises.

The matter relates to a trading standards sting operation in December 2005 where venues owned by Mitchells & Butlers, the Restaurant Group and Jarvis Hotels served alcohol to an under-18.

Officers dropped the action after District Judge Martin Walker said he did not believe premise licence holders were liable for the underage sale.

Following Judge Walker's comments, more than a dozen other prosecutions were dropped against premise licence holders for the same offence.

Specialist licensing lawyer Graeme Cushion, a partner at Poppleston Allen, who represented the three companies, said this was not a binding judgement because a full hearing into the case was never held, but the judge's comments offer a "strong indication of what a court's view might be".

Mr Cushion said the cases were "hugely significant" for the rest of the country and a number of prosecutions against bar owners had already been dropped in London because of it.

"The York situation is currently being used to encourage other authorities considering doing the same thing to desist."

Under the new Licensing Act, outlets serving alcohol must have a premises licence holder - effectively the owner - and a designated premises supervisor, which is the landlord or senior bar manager. Other staff can also train to be a personal licence holder. Mr Cushion argued in court that the Act does not specifically say the premises licence holder is responsible for underage sales - so in future prosecutions may only be brought against the landlords or the bar worker who sold it.

Andrew Dunn, director of Oscar's Wine Bar and the Biltmore, in York, who was fined £3,000 after one of his staff sold booze to an under-18, said he should never have been prosecuted as he was the premise licence holder.

"The council has now backtracked on what they walloped me with," he told The Press.

"Trading standards have taken licensing into the dark age."

Deputy council leader Coun Andrew Waller said he was concerned that pub owners would not now be held accountable for underage drinking.

"It's a pity that the law has been written in this way and that this loophole has been identified," Coun Waller explained.

"It means that the duty of care that employers have for the individuals who sell alcohol is effectively removed.

"This has come to fruition in York first because we have been at the forefront of underage sales enforcement in the whole country."

Other routes are open to us'

A COUNCIL spokeswoman said: "It is correct that the council's trading standards team has decided not to pursue 16 prosecutions against premises licence holders on the basis that the district judge indicated that he would not find them liable for the sale of alcohol to people under the age of 18.

"However, there are other avenues open to us, such as the licence review process, which enables us to take action against premises licence holders who persistently flout the law on sales to underage drinkers. There are also new laws coming into effect that are specifically aimed at premise licence holders. These laws will make it an offence if there are three or more underage sales within three months.

"We only take cases to court that we feel merit the court's attention and regularly review our cases to ensure this. This is a brand new and untested area of law, and the district judge has given an indication that we respect. All those employed in the sale of alcohol to under-18s must still be extra vigilant to ensure that illegal sales do not take place. Illegal sales may still result in the seller or the person who is the licensee being summoned to court.

"The whole purpose of withdrawing from these prosecutions was to avoid wasting money. The work involved in the investigations was part of the regular duties of council officers and won't be wasted because it will also be used as part of the licence review process and in on-going prosecutions against a number of the premises involved."