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The Standards Commission is an independent body whose purpose is to encourage high ethical standards in public life through the promotion and enforcement of Codes of Conduct for councillors and those appointed to the boards of devolved public bodies.

"You're on Mute!"

11th February 2021

The recent viral video of a lawyer in Texas who got stuck with a cat filter on Zoom, during a virtual court case, shows online meetings and hearings don't always go to plan!

Since last March, the majority of our Hearings and training events have been held online and - while we don't want to tempt fate - these have run remarkably smoothly.

We were lucky in that the first Hearing we’d scheduled after the full lockdown restrictions started, was not until July, so we had plenty of time to think about how best to manage and run it online.

We normally hold Hearings at the headquarters of the Respondent's Council or devolved public body, so that members of the public and press can attend.

So, our first priority was to identify a platform that would enable us to livestream the Hearing on our website.

Livestreaming has meant that members of the public and press can watch the proceedings in real time, without joining the Hearing itself.

We were also keen to ensure that we could set up ‘breakout rooms’ for the Panel to deliberate and for any witnesses to wait, until they were called to give evidence.

Once we had identified all our requirements and found a suitable platform, Zoom, the next step was to practice over and over, so staff could get used to the settings and Panel Members were confident about how to manage proceedings.

We did so by holding mock Hearings, with staff, members and even colleagues from the office of the Local Government Commissioner for Northern Ireland, playing different roles and providing feedback.

We then moved on to producing information leaflets for those expecting to attend and worked out how to create a virtual, corporate background!

We initially thought that we would only be able to hold online Hearing in cases where there was little or no dispute about the facts of the matter, where few, if any, witnesses would be called.

As the lockdown restrictions continued though, it became apparent that all Hearings would have to be held virtually if we were to keep to the timescales we outline in our Hearing Rules (we are always conscious that Hearing should be held as expeditiously as possible, both in the interest of fairness to the parties and also because witness are able to recall events more clearly).

Our initial concern was that not everyone has the same experience of online platforms, IT, or may not have access to a suitable Wi-Fi connection.

We have, therefore, held online pre-Hearing meetings to check connectivity and have held advance practice sessions with parties and witnesses, to ensure they are comfortable with the platform and how to join the Hearing.

While we still experience the odd hiccup with connectivity and background noise (kids, dogs and police sirens are frequent offenders) we are generally pleased with how the online Hearings have been conducted.

We've now held 12 Hearings, three training events for councillors and one workshop for Council Monitoring Officers online.

We even managed to hear successfully from nine witnesses at the last Hearing.

Sadly, however, like most other virtual meeting users, the most common phrase used is still "you're on mute"!