What is a meal? Scotch Eggs and Covid Protocols
Earlier this month British politician Michael Gove found himself in a spot of controversy over the delicate question of whether or not a Scotch Egg (a boiled egg wrapped in ground pork, breaded, and deep-fried) is a “meal” substantial enough to comply with the UK’s most recent COVID-19 Regulations that restrict pubs in the “high alert” tier to only serving alcohol with a “table meal”. The Regulations explain that a “table meal” is a meal “such as might be expected to be served as the main mid-day or main evening meal, or as a main course at either such meal”. This rather unhelpful definition can be read in its full context here.
Initially Mr. Gove suggested that a Scotch Egg was something less than a meal and “probably a starter”. He later backtracked and confirmed that in his view (for whatever it is worth) a Scotch Egg was a “substantial meal”. Downing Street refused to get further drawn into the controversy and the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said he would not “get into the detail of every possible meal”.
If you don’t work in the hospitality industry this may all sound a little silly, but for restaurateurs and publicans on both sides of the Atlantic the question of what constitutes a “meal” under the prevailing liquor licensing laws has been a matter of some controversy for over a century.
The leading authorities
Way back in 1894 Mr. Justice Drake of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, in the case of Regina v. Sauer, heard an appeal under the Summary Convictions Act from a defendant, presumably the proprietor of the Bank Exchange Saloon and Restaurant, who had been convicted under BC’s then Liquor Licence Regulation Act, 1891 for selling liquor on a Sunday without providing a meal.
At the time it was unlawful in British Columbia to serve liquor on Sundays unless it was to a “bona fide traveller” or in the case of hotels or restaurants, to their guests with meals.
When the patron “came in during prohibited hours and called for a beer” the barkeep refused to serve him unless he ordered a meal – which in this case was cheese and crackers. On appeal the proprietor submitted that this was sufficient to qualify as a meal and the conviction for unlawful service should be set aside.
Justice Drake was having none of it. He held that a “meal” must be interpreted to mean “food that is eaten to satisfy the requirements of hunger” and that “picking a crumb of biscuit as an excuse for drinking is not eating a meal.” Drake, J. went on to observe that if the saloon-keeper’s submissions were accepted, any “fragment of food” would be sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the Act and the law could be too easily evaded. Conviction affirmed.
60 years later in England in the case of Solomon v. Green, (1955) 119 J.P. 289, the issue was whether the Refectory Restaurant of Finchley Road, Golder’s Green had contravened the Licensing Act, 1953 by serving liquor without a meal at a time of day when meal service was required. The meal in question was sandwiches and sausages on sticks (admittedly more substantial than cheese and crackers) which the court of first instance determined was a legitimate meal and not merely a pretence for serving drinks at an otherwise prohibited hour. The appeal to the Queen’s Bench Division was dismissed.
Writing for the court Lord Goddard (Chief Justice of England at the time and known as a no-nonsense sort of fellow) confirmed that the question was a factual one which the appeals court had no basis to second guess. He also indicated that it was preferable not to establish judicial precedent on the issue of exactly what is or is not a meal:
“In this case the old familiar question arises: what is a meal? The court does not intend to give a decision in the nature of an authority that can be cited to other justices on the question what a meal is, or whether a sandwich or a cocktail sausage is a meal.”
What qualifies as a meal for take-away purposes in BC?
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic British Columbia’s Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch has issued a series of Policy Directives permitting liquor and food primary licensees to sell packaged liquor of all types (off sales) “with a meal in conjunction with the sale of a meal that is for take-out or delivery.” This is a considerable relaxation of the usual prohibitions against restaurants selling packaged liquor for off site consumption, to the benefit of the hospitality sector and consumers alike.
Notably absent from the Policy Directive is a definition of “meal.” And while the Terms and Conditions Handbook, and some relatively recent case law, can assist licensees on understanding how to ensure the operation of their restaurant remains focused on food – that guidance is of limited use when applied to take away “meals.”
Confused? If you or your establishment require assistance navigating the ever-changing landscape of BC’s liquor laws and policies contact Dan Coles at Owen Bird.
*Alcohol & Advocacy publishes articles for information (and in this case entertainment) purposes only. They are not a substitute for legal advice, and persons requiring such advice should consult legal counsel.