Hertfordshire County Council is seeking a judgement in the High Court that could allow virtual council meetings to continue after the local elections on May 6.

Currently local government legislation dictates that councillors have to be ‘present’ at a council meeting in order to vote.

And virtual meetings have only been allowed over the past year, because of an amendment in the Coronavirus Bill.

However that Bill only allows for remote attendance at meetings for a limited period – which is due to end in May.

That means that from May 7, councillors will no longer be permitted to meet remotely – even though Covid restrictions could still prevent councils and committees meeting in the same room.

County council officials say the Secretary of State has indicated that there isn’t time to change the legislation.

So now Hertfordshire County Council is hoping to secure a ruling in the High Court that could allow meetings to continue virtually.

The council – in conjunction with Lawyers in Local Government and the Association of Democratic Services Officers – has applied for a ‘declaratory judgement’ from the court, for a correct and modern interpretation of the 1972 legislation.

Speaking at a meeting of the council’s performance and resources cabinet panel, chief legal officer Quentin Baker said it would focus on the terms ‘place’, ‘meeting’ and ‘present’.

It would ask whether – in light of developments over the past 50 years – those words could now be interpreted differently.

And crucially that could determine whether ‘presence’ at a meeting could be virtual, as well as physical.

Mr Baker suggested that when the legislation was drawn up in 1972 the idea of being ‘present’ in a virtual space could not have been comprehended.

And he told councillors that it was not unusual for the courts to be asked to adjust the interpretation of legislation.

But he said he rated the chances of success in the high court as being between 50 and 60 per cent.

Meanwhile he said the council was already looking at alternative options for meetings after May – should there no change to the legislation.

Those options include the use of larger venues, fewer councillors in attendance or holding meetings virtually to advise a senior officer, who was given ‘delegated powers’.

But should the application to the High Court be successful he said they would look towards plans for a ‘hybrid’ model.

At the meeting, Labour group leader Cllr Judi Billing said that she was “frankly outraged” that the Government had not learned from the past year when it came to local democracy.

And she said she and other councillors would be “absolutely incandescent with fury” if precluded from the process by not being able to use technology.

“It seems to me to be absolutely astonishing nobody in government has found a better way of sorting this out in the last year, than by going to a High Court for something that has a 50 or 60 per cent chance of succeeding.”

And executive member for performance and resources Cllr Ralph Sangster said: “Although I am not outraged in respect of it, what I am is disappointed, because it clearly is not appropriate for the Government to not address this issue.

“And I am sure we will be making representations to the various authorities to perhaps sort this out if circumstances become unwieldy and inappropriate.”

Meanwhile the Government’s Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government has confirmed that it have received representations from local authorities and sector representatives, making the case for the continuation of remote meetings beyond May 7.

And the department is said to be carefully considering next steps in this area.