Absent Councillors, and the ‘Six Month Rule’
The view of the NALC Legal Team is that an overt refusal on the part of a parish council as a body to engage with the concept of virtual meetings, and thereby effectively to suspend meetings until such time as physical gatherings can again take place, will not provide grounds to absolve individual councillors from their responsibility to attend meetings.
The advice given is that if a period of six months elapses without attendance of a meeting, then automatic disqualification of individual councillors will apply. Thus, in theory, if a council refuses to meet for a period of six months it might, by default, be dissolved at the conclusion of that period. (It should be noted that paragraph 8 of Schedule of the Local Government Act 1972, which requires councils to hold at least three meetings per annum, has not been disapplied under the Regulations. [The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England And Wales) Regulations 2020])
It must be acknowledged that the government has made provision for councils to arrange ‘virtual’ or remote meetings, using what is generally deemed to be widely available technology, and the expectation is both that councils will make such arrangements and that individual councillors will obey the lawful summons to attend such meetings, unless specific circumstances prevent them from doing so and that they present an apology that the council, when it does meet, finds acceptable. Thus similarly, should the council arrange virtual meetings and individuals fail to attend a meeting for a period of six months without having presented an acceptable apology then automatic disqualification from office would apply.
It is recognised that some councillors will not necessarily have the facility to engage fully with ‘Zoom’ or similar means by which a council may choose to arrange remote meetings. Nonetheless, the failure to ‘attend’ simply because they don’t wish to phone in (something which Zoom enables), despite having that relatively limited facility available to them, should not, in the opinion of the NALC Legal Team, be deemed to be an acceptable reason for absence.