Council hopes of continued remote meetings are dashed by High Court

Quentin Baker, Herts County Council chief legal officer 

Quentin Baker, Herts County Council's chief legal officer - Credit: Herts County Council

A High Court judgement has ended hopes that councils could continue to meet ‘remotely’ after May 7.

Councils and other public bodies have been allowed to meet virtually for the past 12 months.

But the Coronavirus regulations that allowed those virtual meetings are time-limited – and will end on May 7.

And that has led to questions about how councils could return to face-to-face meetings in their usual venues – while maintaining social distancing

Last week Hertfordshire County Council – alongside Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) – asked the High Court to rule on whether virtual meetings may be allowed under existing legislation.

But on Wednesday, April 28 a judgement from the High Court said that when the ‘flexibility regulations’ cease to apply, council meetings ‘must take place in a single, specified geographical location’.

And it suggested primary legislation would be required to allow local authority ‘meetings’ to take place remotely.

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Hertfordshire County Council chief legal officer Quentin Baker, who is president of Lawyers in Local Government, says the decision of the court is “disappointing”, but he says he is confident that the decision will pave the way for the government to legislate.

In the meantime councils will now have to consider whether they need to seek out alternative venues for future meetings, in order to comply with social distancing.

Hertfordshire County Council has already earmarked the Gordon Craig Theatre, in Stevenage, as its ‘Plan B’.

At the High Court hearing (on April 21), Hertfordshire County Council  – in conjunction with LLG and ADSO – had asked for a ruling on the meaning of the Local Government Act (1972).

They had asked the court to focus on the interpretation of ‘meeting’, ‘place’, ‘presence’ and ‘attend’ in the Act.

But the judgement from the High Court has ruled that attending a meeting meant ‘physically going to it’  and that being ‘present’ involves ‘physical presence at that location’.

In response to the  judgement, a spokesperson for Hertfordshire County Council said: “Over the last year technology has allowed local democracy to continue seamlessly despite the restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“However, in light of the High Court’s judgement , Hertfordshire County Council will pursue a number of options for COVID-secure council meetings whilst social distancing measures are still in place.

“This will include external venues with adequate space and provision for public meetings.

“Alongside these, smaller in person meetings will be held in the Council Chamber, and informal meetings will continue to be held virtually.”

Meanwhile John Austin, chair of ADSO, said the situation for councils was now “untenable”.

“I am extremely disappointed that we haven’t achieved the positive outcome we wanted for local authorities,” said Mr Austin.

“The situation councils now find themselves in is untenable and I call on the Secretary of State to back up his support for our claim and legislate quickly, as governments have in Wales and Scotland.”

And HCC chief legal officer Quentin Baker – president of LLG – said: “Although the court’s decision is disappointing the work done in bringing the case isn’t wasted as it has focussed minds on identifying the key elements of a good meeting and galvanised opinion across the sector in favour of remote attendance as an option.

“I’m confident that we have paved the way for Government to legislate and LLG will be working closely with ADSO to assist the Secretary of State to deliver that outcome.”

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