Virtual local authority meetings: Coronavirus Bill amended, ruling out uncertainty

As the world moves rapidly online, and we learn wonderful new words like Zoom and PowWowNow and discover weird new places like Teams, licensing practitioners have been chewing over a thorny question of whether or not local authority meetings, including licensing sub-committee meetings can lawfully be undertaken online, given the provisions of Schedule 12 of the Local Government Act 1972 requiring votes to be taken by members “present” at a meeting.

This had previously been interpreted by government (in pre-COVID-19 days) as meaning they had to be physically present in a building.

My colleague Gary Grant argued persuasively in an article that licensing hearings were not affected by these provisions as s.9(3) of the Licensing Act 2003. That of course would not assist non-licensing hearings Gerald Gouriet QC in postings on licensing groups took the elegant and simple approach that the statute was “always speaking” and “present” could be construed as present by videolink.

The debate was a real one given the lack of provision in the Coronavirus Bill 2020 as to local government meetings. However, as of today it looks like - as with many things - the rule book is to be torn up. Draft amendments to the Bill published today at NC20 provide:

“Local authority meetings”

(1) The relevant national authority may by regulations make provision relating to—

(a) requirements to hold local authority meetings;

(b) the times at or by which, periods within which, or frequency with which, local authority meetings are to be held;

(c) the places at which local authority meetings are to be held;

(d) the manner in which persons may attend, speak at, vote in, or otherwise participate in, local authority meetings;

(e) public admission and access to local authority meetings;

(f) the places at which, and manner in which, documents relating to local authority meetings are to be open to inspection by, or otherwise available to, members of the public.

(2) The provision which may be made by virtue of subsection (1)(d) includes in particular provision for persons to attend, speak at, vote in, or otherwise participate in, local authority meetings without all of the persons, or without any of the persons, being together in the same place.

(3) The regulations may make provision only in relation to local authority meetings required to be held, or held, before 7 May 2021.

(4) The power to make regulations under this section includes power—

(a) to disapply or modify any provision of an enactment or subordinate legislation;

(b) to make different provision for different purposes;

(c) to make consequential, supplementary, incidental, transitional or saving provision.

The balance of the clause consists of provisions giving the regulations wide reach. The Member’s explanatory statement provides:

This new clause confers power on the Secretary of State, Welsh Ministers and Department for Communities in Northern Ireland to make regulations in relation to meetings of specified local authorities. It may be used, for example, to remove requirements to hold annual meetings, or to allow virtual meetings. It may only be used in relation to meetings taking place before 7 May 2021.

And, as is often the way these days, days which each feel like weeks, dear reader, that is probably that.

Charles Holland -
Barrister

Licensing law, chancery/commercial litigation and property.

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