30 April 2021Publish date: 30/04/2021
Whoever said that the law was dull and who could have imagined that a meeting of a dysfunctional parish council could attract a thousand viewers via you tube. Perhaps this surrealist vision is a reflection of the dreamlike year of lockdown we've all just lived through. A time when councils across the land, overnight, converted the way they conducted their most significant decision making from the age old 'face to face' meeting to the new world or Zoom, MS Teams and 'legacy hands'.
The transformation happened overnight and for many it all got off to a shaky start with congested bandwidth, feedback and councillors demonstrating their need for basic ICT skills training. Worse than this were the occasions where councillors forgot that they were on video….perhaps the less said the better. However, we quickly overcame these initial hurdles and found ways to avoid the feedback. We learnt by our mistakes and built in regular breaks to the meetings and developed protocols to bring order to the proceedings.
Fast forward to the present and there must have been literally tens probably hundreds of thousands of fully remote meetings conducted during the last 12 months. Perhaps the most notable fact is that Handsworth Parish Council was the only one to go viral and this is probably due to the fact that the vast majority of the remote meetings were successfully conducted and achieved satisfactory outcomes.
So it was disappointing to read the recent judgement of the President of the QBD and Mr Justice Chamberlain which concluded that the court should not in this case utilise the updating approach to statutory interpretation in light of contextual changes, but instead to stand back and leave the issue for parliament to decide. The argument around the role of the courts and that of the parliament has a familiar ring to it, reminiscent of the Brexit litigation.
The disappointment doesn't arise from any lack of technical prowess in the construction of the judgement which, as you'd expect from judges of this calibre is succinct and logical in its execution. However, it's the implicit underlying presumption that Local Authorities aren't able or can't be trusted to safely conduct these meetings without Parliament having imposed an additional layer of prescriptive rules which undermines this judgement. This is at odds with the reality that we've all experienced at the chalk face.
So, for me the last few weeks have proved to be a bit of a legal rollercoaster. On the one hand, a fascinating opportunity to experience the High Court in action in seeking to make sense of arguments which are more nuanced than many straightforward legal actions with two parties slogging it out as opposed to this case in which all parties had a shared view which, as it transpired, was at odds with the Judges. On the other, the irony of the hearing itself getting off to a shaky start due to the court having some technical issues which caused feedback when counsel delivered their submission. It was surely a portent.
Although the court chose not to exercise its discretion in our favour the process of taking the application to court has strengthened the resolve to do whatever is necessary to enable the option for remote attendance to become a permanent option in the future and we will work with MHCLG to enable it to happen quickly and effectively.