Belfast City Council
Image caption Belfast City Council spent £2,359.61 on a case against a social club which resulted in a £150 fine

A legal case over substitute vodka has cost Belfast City Council more than fifteen times the amount the social club which sold it was fined.

The case was brought against a Liverpool supporters club in the city.

The club, in Disraeli Street, was fined last month for selling vodka “not of the nature demanded by the consumer”.

According to Belfast City Council, this followed a guilty plea submitted by the club.

Council officers visited the premises in October 2016 and took a sample of vodka from a three-litre optic bottle of a well known brand.

Analysis found that it was not authentic as the sample did not contain the appropriate sugar markers for the vodka brand in question.

Cheaper brand

The sample was taken as a result of a complaint forwarded to Belfast City Council from Trading Standards, alleging that the club was substituting a well known brand with a cheaper brand of vodka.

The council said the offence was a breach of food safety regulations.

In response to a Freedom of Information request from BBCNI News, the council has now explained that its total costs in the case amounted to £2,359.61.

The costs break down as follows:

  • Belfast City Council Legal services – preparing the case; advice to officers – £340
  • Fee for barrister – court appearance and consultations – £200
  • Public analyst’s fee – analysis of alcohol sample – £120
  • Belfast City Council’s business support – preparing the summons / attending court – £306.53
  • Total cost for Lead Investigating Officer – £1,018.02
  • Total cost for Investigating officer – £375.06

The number of Belfast City Council staff involved in the case from start to finish was four.

As well as the £150 fine imposed on the social club, the council was awarded £120 in costs at the end of the court case.

In a statement, Belfast City Council said it “has a statutory duty to protect consumers by investigating potential food safety offences, and identifying and preventing risk to public health”.

“Where any breaches of food safety legislation are detected in carrying out these duties, the council is required to take enforcement action,” it added.

Colin Neil of Hospitality Ulster said: “The size of the fine compared to the actual cost to run the case, I mean they just don’t measure up.

“We have to realise that they’re not just cheating the manufacturer of the product, they’re cheating their customers.

“The fine should be at least, sort of, four or five times the actual cost to run the case,” he added.

‘Right to take the case’

Ed McDonald from the Food Standards Agency said it was right to take the case.

“The courts have sentencing guidelines that they have to adhere to,” said Mr McDonald.

“The investigators can’t really influence that. They can only put the facts before the court and the court decides, so the prosecution is justified.

“It’s up to the courts to decide what is the correct punishment for that.”

While the social club case was about substituting vodka, Trading Standards said some pubs have been penalised with much bigger fines over the last two years.

Spokesman Bill Malloy said: “The level of fine is entirely up to the magistrate but we’ve had substantial fines.

“We had a fine of £6000 relating to Quinn’s bar in Newcastle and a fine of £1500 relating to the Castle Bar in Londonderry.”

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