THE campaign against underage drinking and anti-social behaviour in Scotland has been dealt a heavy blow after the country's largest local authority lost a landmark ruling at the Court of Session.

Lidl won an appeal against Glasgow City Council's five-day ban on the discount supermarket selling alcohol after one branch was caught illegally selling a bottle of wine to a 16-year-old in a test purchase.

The case is expected to have wider repercussions after judges ruled the penalty was excessive and had been given for the wrong reasons. Councils are now likely to be limited in what sanctions they can impose on licensees caught selling alcohol to underage teenagers in police stings.

Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, the national alcohol charity, said the judgment was very disappointing. She added: "An objective of licensing in Scotland is to protect the public, and selling alcohol to an underage girl is not protecting the public or the best interests of young people. But if you can't impose sanctions against people when they break the terms of the licence, then how can you fulfil the terms of the licensing agreement?

"It's just a case of businesses using their resources to mount legal cases to fight things that are actually for the public good."

She claimed the alcohol industry had behaved in a similar way in fighting the Scottish Government's plans for minimum unit pricing of alcohol.

Lord Mackay of Drumadoon ruled Glasgow's decision to ban alcohol sales at Lidl's store in Victoria Road, Pollokshaws, "involved an error of law in the respects that it involves an apparent misapprehension of the proper function of a licensing board".

He said the German firm had acted responsibly, both before and after the underage sale, adding that the Glasgow board came to a decision it should "not properly and rationally have reached".

The move is expected to lead to licensing boards adopting a more cautious approach now when issuing sanctions or risk costly court proceedings against major supermarket chains.

The checkout operator responsible for the sale was a duty manager and was dismissed following disciplinary proceedings on the basis he had not followed the correct policy in relation to alcohol sales. The store later passed a second test.

Midlothian Council was recently ordered to pay Tesco's legal costs after the supermarket giant successfully appealed against a 48-hour licence suspension in a row over underage drinking. The local licensing board imposed a two-day ban preventing a branch in Dalkeith from selling any alcohol after it failed a test purchase by selling two bottles of beer to a 16-year-old.

The ban was later overturned by Edinburgh Sheriff Court when Sheriff Principal Mhairi Stephen ruled there was no proper basis for suspending the licence to "protect children from harm". She added that follow-up test purchases had been challenged.

Part of the problem for those who wish to see tougher penalties enforced against those who flout the law is that the wording of licensing agreements speaks of "protecting children from harm".

However, the law defines a child as a person under the age of 16 and a young person as aged 16 or 17.

Alcohol Focus Scotland has asked ministers to consider changing the objective related to protecting children from harm to include young people.

However, the industry said it showed the courts will not endorse "over the top" decisions by councils in imposing penalties for the sale of alcohol to underage customers.

One senior trade source said: "This landmark decision follows two sheriff court cases overturning licence suspensions imposed on careful and responsible operators, and makes it clear the courts will not support an 'over the top' approach where a licence holder has taken extensive, robust steps to prevent underage sales of alcohol.

"It will not be welcomed by those who unrealistically seek absolute perfection on the part of staff who proceed to disobey clear, repeated instructions, but it plainly supports responsible retailers."

Leading licensing lawyer Tom Johnston added: "The overturning of the Lidl decision could not be more welcome.

"To punish an organisation with an exemplary track record, just because there are unscrupulous operators elsewhere, is justice on a par with the Salem witch trials.

"Thank goodness common sense still flourishes at the top end of Scottish justice."

A Glasgow licensing board spokesman said: "We will study the judgment and carefully consider our options."