The High Court has refused to declare that councils can continue to hold meetings remotely on or after 7 May in a case brought by local government lawyers – saying the matter is for parliament, not the courts, to decide.
Current coronavirus regulations allow councils to hold meetings remotely before 7 May. Extending the regulations to meetings beyond this date would require emergency legislation. However, the government said the legislative programme was already under ‘severe pressure’.
Lawyers in Local Government (LLG), the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) and Hertfordshire County Council asked the High Court to decide whether the Local Government Act 1972 permits remote meetings in England when the relevant coronavirus regulations cease to have effect. Local authorities in Scotland and Wales are subject to different legislative regimes.
Handing down judgment today, Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, and Mr Justice Chamberlain said meetings provided for by the 1972 act are an important mechanism of government of the country. ‘The decisions taken at these meetings may have significant legal consequences for third parties. It will often be necessary to decide whether a meeting is quorate or whether a majority of those present has voted in favour of a particular resolution. Questions of this kind can give rise to acrimonious disputes. This makes it important to have certainty about what constitutes attendance or presence at a meeting. Without such certainty, it may be unclear whether a particular decision has been validly taken or not.’
The judges concluded that once the flexibility regulations cease to apply, local authority meetings must take place at a single, specified geographical location, attending a meeting ‘means physically going to it’ and being ‘present’ at the meeting involves ‘physical presence at that location’.
They added: ‘The decision whether to permit some or all local authority meetings to be conducted remotely, and if so how, and subject to what safeguards, involves difficult policy choices on which there is likely to be a range of competing views. These choices have been made legislatively for Scotland by the Scottish Parliament and for Wales by the Senedd. In England, they are for parliament, not the courts.’
Before the court makes a final order, parties have been allowed to make submissions on whether a meeting required by the 1972 act to take place in person is ‘open to the public’ or ‘held in public’ if the only means by which the public are permitted to access it are remote.
The government has issued a call for evidence on current arrangements for remote meetings.
LLG president Quentin Baker said: ‘Although the court’s decision is disappointing the work done in bringing the case isn’t wasted as it has focused 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.’