Virtual council meetings could continue after local elections
Deborah Price, local democracy reporter
- Credit: Herts County Council
A judgement is being sought in the High Court to allow virtual meetings of Herts County Council to continue after the local elections on May 6.
Currently local government legislation dictates that councillors have to be physically present at a council meeting in order to vote, and virtual meetings have only been allowed over the past year, because of an amendment in the coronavirus bill.
However from May 7, councillors will no longer be permitted to meet remotely – even though restrictions could still prevent councils and committees meeting in the same room.
So now the council has applied for a ‘declaratory judgement’ from the court, for a correct and modern interpretation of the 1972 legislation.
Speaking at a meeting of the council’s performance and resources cabinet panel, chief legal officer Quentin Baker, who is president of Lawyers in Local Government, said it would focus on the terms ‘place’, ‘meeting’ and ‘present’, and ask whether those words could be reinterpreted to allow for a virtual presence in meetings.
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Mr Baker suggested that when the legislation was drawn up in 1972 the idea of being ‘present’ in a virtual space could not have been comprehended, and he told councillors that it was not unusual for the courts to be asked to adjust the interpretation of legislation.
Meanwhile he said the council was already looking at alternative options for meetings after May, should there no change to the legislation, including the use of larger venues, fewer councillors in attendance or holding meetings virtually to advise a senior officer, who was given ‘delegated powers’.
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But should the application to the High Court be successful he said they would look towards plans for a ‘hybrid’ model.
At the meeting leader of the Labour group Cllr Judi Billing said that she was “frankly outraged” that the government had not learned from the past year when it came to local democracy.
And she said she and other councillors would be “absolutely incandescent with fury” if precluded from the process by not being able to use technology.
“It seems to me to be absolutely astonishing nobody in government has found a better way of sorting this out in the last year, than by going to a High Court for something that has a 50 or 60 per cent chance of succeeding.”