Remote control in licensing hearings
The Licensing Advice Project at Westminster Citizens Advice, funded by Westminster City Council, is the only service of its kind in the country. During the Covid crisis it has had to switch to virtual hearings. Project Solicitor Richard Brown describes the challenges.
The Westminster Licensing Project provides advice, assistance, information and representation to residents and businesses on their rights and responsibilities under relevant licensing legislation concerning bars, nightclubs, restaurants, pubs, betting shops and lap-dancing clubs. It helps residents to engage with these regimes and to exercise their rights as objectors to applications and/or to address problems with licensed premises. http://www.licensingadvice.org/
The Project is funded by Westminster City Council.
Richard Brown explains: “As with all of Citizens Advice services, this project has had to react to the challenging circumstances caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Colleagues have embraced home working and committed to providing the full range of services to the same quality, even as social-distancing has limited interactions between staff and clients in the usual way.
“One of the unusual things about the licensing project is the advocacy service we provide. In addition to assisting clients with responding to applications for new licences or extended hours, we also represent clients at the hearings when these applications are determined.
“Prior to the pandemic, licence hearings took place at City Hall on Victoria Street SW1, before a panel of councillors making up a Licensing Sub-Committee. I would troop along there most weeks, along with the applicant’s legal representatives to argue our cases. Hearings still take place before this panel of councillors, but now they take place using remote technology – namely the Microsoft Teams platform.
“This has taken some getting used to for all parties – councillors, council officers, residents, applicants, and legal advisors. Quite apart from the technical difficulties, the practical difficulties have been thrown into focus. For a ‘normal’ hearing, we would meet the client(s) beforehand to discuss the approach. We would also meet at City Hall before the hearing to discuss last-minute changes to an application. We would be able to ‘take instructions’ in person during a hearing. We would also be able to have a pow-wow with the applicant’s legal representatives ‘ at the door of the court’ – it is amazing how much can be achieved in 20 minutes immediately before a hearing that could not be achieved in the weeks leading up to it!
“By contrast, the hearing now takes place via audio only – i.e. we cannot see the other parties (and vice versa). We ‘meet’ with clients where necessary over Zoom or similar platforms. We have set up ‘whatsapp’ groups with clients so that we can communicate during the hearing – a crucial facility given that a hearing is as much a ‘round-table’ discussion as an adversarial hearing. The real benefit is that parties need to be much better prepared at a much earlier stage, with the Council expressing a strong preference for written submissions, that constitute a ‘statement of case’ , being submitted a few days prior to a hearing. Discussions can then take place to narrow down any remaining issues.
“The pandemic has been a learning curve for many at Citizens Advice. Remote hearings are just one way in which we have adapted to provide a service that is as ‘normal’ as possible in times that are far from normal!“