Change to law on gambling in Northern Ireland – What are the odds?

September 27, 2016

Advances in technology and changing social trends have seen certain forms of gambling increase in popularity as they have become more accessible to the general public. Gambling is a transferred matter for the purposes of the NI Act 1998 and is currently regulated in Northern Ireland by The Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. This legislation has proved increasingly inflexible and overly restrictive in the face of developments in the gambling market. As a result, there have been calls to modernise the law and align regulation with that in place in the rest of the UK. Indeed, in 2011, a public consultation was undertaken to seek views on possible changes to the current gambling law.  A total of 239 responses were received to the consultation including the views of 44 organisations with a general recognition that the law was overly restrictive and in need of modernisation.

In updating the law, it will be necessary to achieve a balance between easing current restrictions on the industry, thereby widening the scope of the market in Northern Ireland, but also minimise the potential negative consequences of gambling and ensure fairness in the industry. Proposed changes include the enactment of a new offence making it illegal for under 18’s to use gambling machines as well as the requirement that a bookmaker’s bet constitutes an enforceable contract as opposed to merely ‘a gentleman’s agreement’. Under the current law in NI, prize draws which do not depend on a ‘substantial’ degree of skill are prohibited unless they are free to enter. The replacement legislation may well seek to redefine the boundary between what constitutes legal activity generating revenue and what amounts to an illegal lottery by removing the requirement that the degree of skill exercised be substantial.  This will allow players in Northern Ireland to compete in the same competitions as other UK residents.

At present, in the betting sector in Northern Ireland there are: approximately 330 licensed bookmaking offices; two horse racing tracks; two dog racing tracks and around 40 commercial bingo clubs. However, one of the largest entertainment companies in Europe, The Rank Group, have so far been unable to expand into Northern Ireland because of the tighter legal restrictions here compared to the rest of the UK. However the present blanket prohibition on casinos in Northern Ireland looks set to stay eliciting criticism that Belfast is the only major UK city without the choice as to whether such development may be licensed. Change to Northern Ireland’s gambling legislation may not come as soon as many would hope, as any draft legislation will have to go through a lengthy process of scrutiny before it completes its passage through the assembly.

This article has been produced for general information purposes and further advice should be sought from a professional advisor.