A COUPLE who run a discount alcohol shop were described as atrocious licensees at Teesside Magistrates'court yesterday.

Cecelia Hart and her partner, Hafeez Malik, were accused of turning a blind eye to the age of some of the customers in the Wine Lodge, in Durham Road, Stockton.

Cleveland Police have applied to strip the business of Mrs Hart's justices' off-licence certificate - which could put them out of business.

Yvonne Taylor, representing the force, told the licensing magistrates that two under-age girls had been filmed on the store's closed-circuit television buying drink in November last year.

The pair were arrested after they bought several bottles of wine, cider and White Star from Mr Malik.

The girls, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said they regularly bought alcohol in the shop - one from the age of 14.

Asked why they used the store, one replied: "I knew I could get served because I knew I looked old enough."

PC Mark Hodgson, of the Stockton District licensing unit, said the shop had been reported on four occasions for selling alcohol to under-age youngsters and criticised the couple's licensing skills before accusing them of knowingly selling alcohol to under-age people.

"Their licensing knowledge is atrocious," he said.

"I don't believe either of them are suitable to hold an off-licence or on licence."

He added: "I believe they have turned a blind eye to the age of some customers."

Solicitor Simon Walker, speaking for the couple, dismissed the claims and said two of the complaints did not specifically identify the Wine Lodge as the source of the alcohol-related trouble.

"The drink could have been bought from Stockton High Street or Timbuktu - it could have come from anywhere."

He said in 14 years of trading from the store, only one incident directly involved either Mr Malik or Mrs Hart and that happened in November.

On that occasion, the criminal charge was discontinued when the prosecution failed to trace a key witness.

The remaining incident occurred when Mrs Hart was holidaying in the Dominican Republic when a Stockton Borough Council "sting" was carried out resulting in a warning letter.

The case continues.