The balance of responsibility


THE TRAGIC death of Graham Parish from acute alcohol poisoning in 2008 and the subsequent court case in which two bar staff at Hayes Hotel in Thurles, Co Tipperary were charged with manslaughter has focused attention on the absence of liquor liability legislation in this State.

 Judge Tom Teehan yesterday directed that the two barmen be found not guilty of manslaughter. He ruled that Mr Parish’s decision to consume the fatal drink, which contained eight spirit measures, was of overriding importance and that no jury could safely bring in a verdict of guilty. The direction given by the judge, and his emphasis on personal responsibility, is likely to give rise to considerable public debate. Where does the balance between civic and personal responsibility lie?

Alcohol has a dulling effect on awareness. Mr Parish had been celebrating his 26th birthday for about four hours in the hotel bar before the final drink was ordered. The fact that his English colleagues had surreptitiously added spirits to earlier drinks may have further clouded his judgment.

Whatever about that, the outcome has identified serious gaps in our alcohol-related laws and highlighted a reluctance by successive governments to address them. Any challenge to the drinks industry in this country has been half-hearted, despite the damage caused to society by excessive consumption of alcohol.

Eight years ago, as a result of a rise in late-night public disorder, publicans who served alcohol to intoxicated persons or who permitted drunkenness on their premises could, for the first time, be fined heavily or have their premises closed. It wasn’t enough. In 2008, new laws were passed to protect “the health of individuals and society at large”. Those provisions were aimed mainly at alcohol sales outlets and at under-age drinking. Gardaí were given the power to seize alcohol being consumed in public by young people but, following intense lobbying by supermarkets, physical restrictions affecting licensed premises were not applied.

Liquor liability issues arose last year when Dermot Ahern, then minister for justice, proposed a code of practice for the sale of alcohol. Regulations were put forward to reduce the risk of public disorder and to address health risks arising from the excessive consumption of alcohol. But the Bill never made it past the second stage in the Dáil and it lapsed with the outgoing government.

Other countries have well-developed liquor liability legislation. It makes establishments and individuals selling alcohol liable for injuries caused to their customers or to third parties. The charges concerning Mr Parish’s death had nothing to do with alcohol legislation. They were simple manslaughter charges and were based on a “duty of care” owed by the barmen to their customer.

These events have blighted the lives of those involved and have demonstrated the need for proper training and stricter legislation. The Parish case raises many questions on the balance of responsibilities.