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Active participants in meetings of local authorities in England under Local Government Act 1972 must attend in person: LLG and ADSO

Those actively participating in a meeting of a local authority in England under the Local Government Act 1972 – whether as objectors, applicants or appellant – must attend in person from 7 May, LLG (Lawyers in Local Government) and ADSO (the Association of Democratic Services Offices) have told their members after the High Court’s additional judgment yesterday on the requirement for a meeting to be “open to the public” or “held in public”.

The High Court (Dame Victoria Sharp P and Mr Justice Chamberlain) concluded that a requirement that a meeting under the 1972 Act is to be "open to the public" or "held in public" means that members of public must be admitted in person to the place where the meeting is being held.

They had previously ruled that in this particular statutory context, a "meeting" must take place at a single, specified geographical location; "attending" such a meeting involves physically going to it; and being "present" at such a meeting involves physical presence at the location [see paragraph 89].

The upshot of the first ruling is that meetings held by local authorities in England under the 1972 Act must take place in person from 7 May, when The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020 expire.

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In a member update on the second High Court ruling – Hertfordshire County Council & Ors v Secretary of State for Housing, Communities And Local Government [2021] EWHC 1145 (Admin) – ADSO chair John Austin and LLG Head of Public Affairs Helen McGrath said: “The Court has ruled that local authority meetings must be open to the public in a physical sense. References to a meeting being “open to the public” or “held in public” in the Court’s view mean the physical attendance by the public. This means that the public can attend in person and councils have to provide such facilities. This should however be provided and managed in line with current restrictions and public health advice. So, in practical terms, Councils have no choice but to control the numbers of people physically in the meeting room at any one time to comply with the Government’s Covid restrictions in place.

“Councils can still provide live streaming/broadcasts to allow wider public access. There is a difference in our view between the public accessing the meeting on the live stream or broadcast as observers and those actively participating in the meeting as (as) objectors, applicants, or appellants. Based on the above additional judgment, the latter’s attendance must be in person but in the broader sense, the meeting must still be open to the public, even those not participating, albeit in compliance with the covid restrictions in place for the time being.

“We realise that this places additional pressure on local authorities in their arrangements for meetings moving forward. We would urge all local authorities and indeed individuals to now turn their attention to the Local Authority Remote Meetings: Call for Evidence and respond to the government by 17th June 2021.”

Austin and McGrath added: “As ever, it is for your authority to take its own view both on the interpretation of the judgment and the steps it will be taking in respect of the conduct of meetings moving forward. Please do take advantage of our private member forum areas on our respective websites to discuss arrangements with your colleagues and share best practice.”

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