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Musings of a licensing practitioner on the days of remote hearings

By Jonathan Smith, partner, Poppleston Allen

- Last updated on GMT

Looking ahead: Poppleston Allen's Jonathan Smith predicts the future will be a combination of remote and in-person hearings
Looking ahead: Poppleston Allen's Jonathan Smith predicts the future will be a combination of remote and in-person hearings

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At the onset of the pandemic all licensing authorities held remote hearings either by Teams or Zoom to a varying degree of success.

Now the pandemic is “over”, although at the time of writing this article there was a 20% increase in the number of Covid cases only last week, are licensing authorities still using the process?

After some discussion and advice from eminent legal professionals, licensing authorities and the Local Government Association received the go-ahead to continue with remote hearings if they wish to do so.

I have seen a mixture of some licensing authorities who continue to use remote hearings only (the minority of licensing authorities), some adopting a hybrid approach of both in person and remote hearings, and others reverting solely to in-person hearings.

But what about the humble licensing practitioner, what do we folk prefer?

There were certain distinct advantages in not spending a Sunday night away from home and the family, sat on your own nursing a pint and your ring binder, the only company being from your continuous stream of WhatsApp messages to the client seeking clarification on certain points before the in-person hearing the following morning.

Remote hearing benefits

I certainly did not miss the long trips on the M5 or being stuck on the M25 whilst travelling to a site meeting and an overnight stay in a budget hotel. With the remote hearing, get your top half dressed, consider your wi-fi signal, lighting and background noise and away you go from the comfort of your own office.

Some councils were fantastic when it came to embracing the technology that remote hearings afforded, particularly the ability of some licensing committee clerks to share screens and to immediately pull up a document you were about to refer to even though you had not even referred to it. 

It made life so much easier rather than floundering around for the relevant agenda page number (if one existed) or the appendix a document was attached at.

And it afforded convenience not only to licensing practitioners and clients who did not need to travel to hearings and spend nights away, but also to resident objectors who had the convenience of not attending a licensing committee meeting which may be some miles away at the local authority’s offices, but rather they could take part in the hearing from the convenience of their own lounge (or on some occasions outdoors in their back garden or while making breakfast, walking around and putting a very noisy kettle on to the complete ignorance of the objector but annoyance of the chairman), or in the case of my favourite, three resident objectors who were in the same living room of one of their houses when we were in lockdown and should not have been in each other’s houses.

But, it had its limitations and as an advocate I personally prefer to be there in front of the licensing committee members, being able to look them in the eye, gauge their body language and reactions to what you have to say and the questions that are being put to you by local residents. These things you simply cannot gauge if you are sat in your office or at home many miles away.

Communication with clients was difficult and I would set up WhatsApp groups, but when trying to listen to the points being raised by the objectors and questions from the committee members it was not easy to also keep an eye on your WhatsApp messages from your clients and respond to them.

Future predictions

Then of course there was the technology, not usually from my end but I have had the misfortune of attending clients’ offices who are insistent that we did it at their offices only to find that the wi-fi was practically non-existent. 

On one occasion the client insisted on conducting the hearing from their own premises, which just happened to be a terrace bar on Brighton sea front which was terrible when you realised how windy it was and the committee members saw more of my ear pressed to the screen than my face.

There is also the opportunity to talk to those who have objected at a hearing to see if there is any compromise which can be reached or anything that we could do within the application to assuage some of their concerns. 

The in-person hearing does avoid the councillor who had their child sat on their lap once during a hearing or the councillor who insisted on talking to his wife who was asking him what he wanted for tea. 

I can see there are occasions and opportunities when for others having a remote hearing would be more convenient, but I suspect more elderly residents who do not have the experience of using Teams would prefer to attend a committee in-person, although of course they have the attendant difficulties in making transport provision to get there.

I suspect that we will continue to see a mixture of approaches from licensing authorities, but [sadly for some] the remote hearing I believe is to some extent here to stay.

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