Hertfordshire County Council seek High Court ruling on legality of virtual meetings after May 7

For the past 12 months councils have met virtually

By Deborah Price, Local Democracy Reporting Service
Friday, 23rd April 2021, 9:02 am
Updated Friday, 23rd April 2021, 9:04 am

The High Court has been asked to decide whether councils are allowed to continue to meet remotely after May 7.

For the past 12 months councils have met virtually, as specified in the Coronavirus regulations.

But the powers allowed by those regulations are time-limited – and will run out on May 7.

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Hertfordshire County Council seek High Court ruling on legality of virtual meetings after May 7

That has raised questions about whether existing legislation in the Local Government Act (1972) allows councils to continue meeting virtually.

And that’s important because Covid restrictions – which require social distancing – could still prevent councils from holding council or committee meetings in the usual way.

On Wednesday (April 21) Hertfordshire County Council took the matter to the High Court.

And they – acting in conjunction with Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) – asked for a ruling on the meaning of the Local Government Act (1972).

Speaking for HCC, LLG and ADSO, barrister Peter Oldham QC said the principal issue was to determine whether all – or some – members of the local authority should be physically present in the same place.

And also, he said, whether the provision for public and press access to local authority meetings could be remote.

He referred to the health risks of meeting in-person during the pandemic, but also the need for clarity in the longer term, in interpreting the 1972 Act.

Essentially his submission asked the court to focus on the interpretation of ‘meeting’, ‘place’, ‘presence’ and ‘attend’ in the Local Government Act.

Representations were also made on behalf of the Local Government Association and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The case was heard at the High Court before the President of the Queen’s Bench Division Dame Victoria Sharp and the Hon Mr Martin Chamberlain.

No judgement was delivered at the end of the full-day hearing, but will follow later.

Should virtual meetings no longer be allowed after May 7, Hertfordshire County Council is looking at using the Gordon Craig Theatre, in Stevenage, as an alternative venue that would allow social distancing.

During the hearing the judge made reference at least twice to the delay, echo or feedback during Mr Oldham’s presentation.

At one point she noted that it was becoming increasingly difficult to hear what Mr Oldham was saying.

And she said: “Our experience of technology is that sometimes it works – and some times it does not."