Local government lawyers are waiting to hear if a High Court bid seeking a declaration on virtual meetings has been successful.
Current coronavirus regulations permitting remote council meetings applies only to meetings held before 7 May. The government told council leaders last month that it was not possible to bring forward emergency legislation to enable remote meetings to continue past 6 May.
Yesterday, the High Court was asked to declare that schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972 empowers local authorities to hold meetings remotely, regardless of the coronavirus regulations. The case - brought by Lawyers in Local Government, the Association of Democratic Services Officers and Hertfordshire County Council – was heard before Dame Victoria Sharp, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, and Mr Justice Chamberlain.
In papers provided to the court to support the claim, the government recognised that there was a case to be heard that the Local Government Act 1972 should be interpreted as allowing for virtual meetings, as the legislation was passed at a time when virtual meetings could not have been envisaged.
The court’s decision is expected shortly.
ADSO chair John Austin said: ‘Our members have been fully committed to these proceedings and we are immensely proud, as a small organisation, to be able to take our case to the High Court to seek to effect a change which will have sweeping beneficial impacts for all if successful. The ability to hold meetings remotely brings openness; it brings transparency and accountability to the process – not only in the way councillors behave, but in how councils conduct their meetings and make them more accessible to the public. Councils deserve a great deal of credit for the way they have managed their business during the pandemic. If successful, our efforts will give them the flexibility to continue to serve their communities in the best possible way.’
ADSO and LLG said the legal action is hugely valuable to all local authorities but ‘comes at a significant price’. They have set up a CrowdJustice page and are hoping to raise £20,000 towards the costs of the case.