As reported in the 21 April Covid-19 Update on this website, PINS provided an Update on how it was processing appeals on 16th April. As lockdown continues, physical events (e.g. public inquiries and hearings for April and May) remain postponed. The Update says that cases are being reviewed on a rolling basis. I briefly summarise my very recent experience of the practical and procedural implications of this.
I am instructed in a 6 day Inquiry (dealing with two conjoined appeals on the same site) which is currently due to commence in the second week of June. A Case Management Conference (CMC) took place by telephone yesterday. In the Inspector’s Pre-Conference Note it was stated that the implications of the inquiry being postponed because of the lockdown restrictions would be considered during the case management conference. The Note set out in what is now the usual (post Rosewell) way what topics are to be dealt with by a round table discussion, written representations and formal presentation of evidence. However, additionally it was stated:
In the event that the inquiry has to be postponed consideration should be given to any issues that can be progressed by written representations, assisted by questions from the Inspector. Potential issues include the car parking for the care home. Other issues could be moved forward through questions from the Inspector and written responses, following the receipt of proofs and SOCG such that the areas requiring discussion at the inquiry are narrowed.
So, although PINS are expecting to be holding their first digital pilot case either at the end of April or in early May, there was no mention in the Inspector’s Note of the possibility of a virtual Inquiry yet for these appeals. Indeed the parties agreed during the CMC that this was not a suitable case for virtual hearing. Although no one involved appeared to consider this to be likely, the CMC proceeded, as it had to, on the basis that Inquiry would go ahead as currently scheduled and the timetable for the submission of documents (SoCG, proofs, time estimates, draft undertakings, CIL compliance statements) was set out on that basis.
It is more likely, as the Inspector helpfully addressed, that even if the Inquiry goes ahead in the reasonably near future (even if not as scheduled) there could still be restrictions in place. Quite what those would be, no one of course yet knows. So it remains something of a “guessing” game. The Inspector asked whether there was anyone involved who was “vulnerable” and consideration is being given to whether the venue would allow for sufficient distancing. He also asked about the likely extent of third party interest. There would also need to be a webcast facility for members of the public to watch and if necessary the facility for any vulnerable witness to give evidence virtually. The Inspector also asked whether all Core Documents could be placed on line, and this is being done by the Council.
The Inspector was, as you would expect, sensitive to the difficulties generally and to any individual and demonstrated a sensible and realistic approach to deal with the procedural and practical difficulties that are inevitably arising.