HUNDREDS of thousands of pounds worth of tobacco and alcohol seized from Britain's first offshore off- licence can be destroyed, a court ruled yesterday.

District judge Stephen Earl ruled that Customs and Excise officers had legally seized 567,000 cigarettes and 322 litres of spirits from the boat, the Cornish Maiden, when it docked at Hartlepool.

Owner Philip Berriman, 47, of Walnut Close, Thornaby, near Stockton, failed to appear at Hartlepool Magistrates' Court for the civil hearing. He has a month to appeal.

He and business partner Trevor Lyons made national headlines when they set up the floating off-licence on the 50ft vessel, 13 miles off Hartlepool Marina last year.

The pair were hoping to exploit what they believed was a loophole in the law and expected to make £10,000 a week.

Mr Lyons, a marine law lecturer, has insisted that because the Cornish Maiden was anchored in international waters, and duty had been paid on stock in another EU country, the venture was legal.

But Customs and Excise officials seized 567,000 cigarettes, 322 litres of spirits, 12kg of tobacco and 1,000 cigars last August when the vessel docked.

However, Mr Berriman argued the seizure was illegal because he had given Customs a written pledge to guard the stock, consistent with the law.

James Puzey, for Customs and Excise, said because Mr Berriman had not sworn ownership of the stock, and had not turned up to court as directed by a previous judge, he was already in breach of the law.

Mr Berriman later told The Northern Echo that he was stranded in Thailand because of the tsunami and had been unable to attend.

He said: "I have done everything I could to get back."