Hertfordshire County Council hopes of continued remote meetings are dashed by High Court

Councils will now have to consider whether they need to seek out alternative venues for future meetings, in order to comply with social distancing

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.

Hertfordshire County Council offices

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.

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.

And 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).

And 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.”

Responding to the judgement in the High Court application made by Hertfordshire County Council, Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers, Cllr James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “It is very disappointing that this last avenue to allow councils to hold online and hybrid meetings whilst COVID-19 restrictions are still in force has not been successful.

"Councils by law, have to hold annual meetings within 21 days following local elections, so many will now have to use very large external venues to allow all members of the council to meet in person.

“Councils want to continue to have powers to hold online and hybrid meetings even when restrictions have been lifted.

"A recent LGA survey of its members revealed that 83 per cent of councils said they would be very likely or fairly likely to conduct meetings both online and in a hybrid way once the coronavirus emergency was over if they had the power.

“The current flexibility has been paramount in allowing access for both councillors and the public into council meetings.

"Many councils have, in fact, seen significantly increased participation by the public in meetings where important decisions are made about planning, housing and the provision of local services.

"Councils want the flexibility to continue to meet in this way and continue their business, especially in times of emergency such as when flooding occurs or if there is significant traffic disruption due to weather conditions.

“The Government gave clear evidence at the hearing in support of allowing the option of online and hybrid meetings. Unfortunately, the judgement is clear that primary legislation is needed to allow councils to use technology to hold meetings.”

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We are grateful for the efforts of councils to ensure meetings could continue remotely over the past year.

“Councils will need to return to face-to-face meetings after 6 May and should continue to prepare accordingly.”