Early on during the pandemic, an alternative procedure was required to enable civil, criminal and administrative matters to continue to be heard to prevent a very real threat of backlogs in the system and subsequent injustice and delay.
Remote or virtual hearings, which are held exclusively by way of an online platform, are now a huge part of the local authority administrative process in particular, and there is a growing call for them to be made a permanent feature of democracy.
The legal basis for remote meetings and hearings lies in a variety of legislation, which detail whether a particular matter must be heard in person, or if it can be heard remotely.
Licensing hearings are established entirely under the Licensing Act 2003 and related Regulations, and a prevailing interpretation of this legislation is that remote hearings are legally permissible.
On that basis, it is likely that some local authorities will continue to hold licensing hearings remotely. The issue is not beyond argument and it may be that in the future we see further Government intervention requiring licensing hearings to be held in person. However, in the meantime, if you are involved in a licensing hearing it might well be a virtual experience.
Remote hearings do have a number of practical advantages. Attendance is much simpler for all. Travel issues, distance to the town hall, even social distancing doesn’t matter if you are attending the hearing from your home or office.
There are no worries about your car breaking down or delays to your train (or, in my experience, having sufficient coins for the surprisingly abundant cash-only parking machines still dotted around the country). Conversely, if you are in the middle of a hearing and your wi-fi drops out or is patchy, your killer line that is going to win you the case may in fact fall on deaf ears. Thankfully, many authorities have technical back-up should you need to phone in.
Preparation is key
As with everything in licensing, preparation is key. You need to ensure that, if you are legally represented but not physically with your lawyer, you have lines of communication open during the hearing by way of a separate online platform, for example Whatsapp.
You also need to check, check and check again that you understand the joining instructions, have the technical capability to join the platform that the local authority is using (they do not all use the same one), and that you have a quiet and uninterrupted space. One of my colleagues recalls the chair of a hearing politely asking attendees to limit background noise while his own wife was flushing the toilet and his dog began to bark.
The most important thing is to remember that regardless of where you are sitting, a licensing hearing is still the same process and should be approached with the same preparation, professionalism and diligence as an in-person hearing.