In the recent summer budget, George Osborne revealed plans to relax Sunday trading laws by devolving power to local authorities. Under the current rules, large shops (those with a shop floor larger than 280 square metres) cannot open for more than 6 hours on Sundays. The proposals would end the national 6 hour limit and allow metro mayors and local authorities to 'zone' parts of their area in which large shops could open for longer.

Unsurprisingly, this has provoked mixed reactions. Some argue it will boost the economy and revitalise the high street, helping it compete with online retailers. Lobby group Open Sundays has claimed the reforms will bring in £20.3bn over 20 years to the British economy. Others believe it will harm family life and damage society. It's not just churches and trade unions that have responded negatively, the Association of Convenience Stores says that small shops may struggle if the crucial advantage of their long opening hours is removed. But whatever your views on the social and economic impact of the proposals, there are a surprising number of legal implications that retailers should be aware of:

  • Planning: even if the relevant local authority removes Sunday restrictions, there may still be planning constraints affecting premises which prevent longer opening. If so, retailers will need to take steps to avoid the risk of planning enforcement action being taken against them.
  • Employment: retailers must carefully consider how to manage their workforce to cover additional hours. Unless they are employed specifically to work on Sundays, shop workers are protected from being penalised for refusing to work on Sundays. Any alterations of working hours will require changes to employment contracts, and if an employee refuses, imposing the change anyway could lead to constructive dismissal claims. In addition, under equality laws, any blanket policy requiring employees to work on Sundays may discriminate indirectly against Christians and other religious groups. Employers will need to think carefully before imposing such a policy.
  • Leases: the changes may have implications for leases. If turnover rent is involved, landlords may put pressure on tenants to open for longer if it means a higher turnover and therefore a higher rent. There may also be concerns about an increase in service charge if services are extended beyond current standard opening hours (for example lighting and security in shopping centres).
  • Practical considerations: the changes will have a knock on effect on many things, from stock levels and delivery times to waste removal and technical support. Retailers will need to manage all of these to ensure the smooth running of extended Sunday opening, and supply chain contracts may need to be amended. This will be made more complicated by the ad hoc nature of the proposals, meaning different rules for different stores across the country.