What next for virtual local authority meetings?


29 June 2021

In April, the High Court ruled that meetings held by local authorities had to take place in person from 7 May 2021 when the coronavirus regulations expired (which we covered previously). The judgment refused to apply a modern interpretation to pre-existing legislation ruling that being “present” at a meeting involves physical presence at “a single, specified geographical location” where the meeting is taking place.

Summary

The current position on local authority meetings is as follows:

  • local authority members are required to be physically present for a meeting to be validly held from 7 May 2021
  • advisers who are not members can take part virtually. But as a reminder they must be able to hear and be heard, and where practicable, seen
  • members of the public must have the option to physically attend the meeting, however, the local authority can also broadcast or live-stream some or all of its meetings
  • a call for evidence by the government indicates that the use of virtual or hybrid meetings may be possible in the future for those local authorities who wish to continue to conduct meetings in this way.

Dismissed legal challenge

Many feel the decision not to extend the ability to remotely hold meetings is not in accordance with the Government’s wider lockdown easing strategy. Under the current roadmap out of lockdown, large indoor gatherings with no restrictions cannot be held until at least 19 July 2021. A further imbalance is highlighted by the fact MPs are able to remotely participate in the House of Commons until 22 July 2021.

Safe public attendance

The High Court also ruled “open to the public” or “held in public” under the Local Government Act 1972 to require physical attendance by the public, and remote access alone does not satisfy this requirement. But it was clarified by the High Court that this does not preclude a local authority from broadcasting or live-streaming some or all of its meetings so as to allow wider public access. The High Court did not specify a physical public attendance figure to satisfy this requirement, and recognised that this will be subject to current public health or government guidance.

The current government guidance encourages local authorities to provide remote access to the public until at least 19 July 2021 (when it is anticipated that all the legal restrictions on social contact will be lifted). The guidance currently states “it is for individual local authorities to satisfy themselves that they have met the requirements for public access”, which is inherently uncertain.

The future of virtual meetings

A more promising indicator from the Government is that local authorities and members of the public were encouraged to share their opinions and experiences via a call for evidence (with a deadline of 17 June 2021) about how remote meetings have been utilised. The outcome has the potential to inform future legislation regarding its use beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

If you would like any further information on the matters covered above, please contact Eleanor Bullen-Bell or another member of the Public Sector Team.

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at June 2021.

Author

Eleanor Bullen-Bell

Trainee Solicitor

+44 (0)1245 211389

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