News focus: council lawyers face up to government cuts

first_imgLocal government solicitors at last weekend’s three-day training event in Exeter were in a curiously upbeat mood for a group facing ‘salami-slicing’ cuts of 10% or more to their legal departments’ headcounts. Delegates at the Solicitors in Local Government (SLG) event were told that even those whose jobs survive the cuts will have to start doing more for less, as care applications in ­children cases climb to their highest-ever level; councils are increasingly challenged for ­failing in their public equality duties; and many of the thousands of redundant council employees bring tribunal claims for unfair dismissal. But Essex County Council county solicitor Philip Thomson, who heads a legal team of 80 fee-earners and 40 others with an in-house budget of £6m, told the Gazette that the need for cuts should be viewed as a ‘catalyst’ for development. He said: ‘It is not about shrinking the number of staff, but rationalising the work so as to make best use of our lawyers. It is a win-win situation – better career opportunities for our lawyers, and a better service for our clients.’ He added that his team, which made savings of £600,000 last year, has been working with other councils in Essex and neighbouring counties since 2000. On 1 April this year, it rolled out a joint case management system to make sharing services as practical and efficient as possible. ‘Problems can arise with shared services, but we believe we have built up the confidence to work with other councils to best effect,’ Thomson said. However solicitor Paul Cox, one of a team of two solicitors and two legal assistants at Rushcliffe Borough Council, south Nottinghamshire, was less sanguine about budgetary pressures. He said: ‘Any savings from our annual budget of £240,000 will be cutting into the bone, not the fat – because there isn’t any fat to cut.’ Cox said he has no plans yet for partnership with other councils, ‘just local ad hoc reciprocal arrangements, which is better that putting work out to the private sector’. At Slough Borough Council, acting borough secretary, solicitor and monitoring officer Maria Memoli said her team has achieved cuts of £500,000 to legal and democratic services through a range of ‘restructuring’ and other measures. She said: ‘The team has shrunk from 25 lawyers to ten, although some of these were vacancies that we simply did not fill.’ Memoli added that Slough’s legal team has reduced its training spend by mainly attending free sessions only. She is also looking at introducing webinars, which save on travel and time away from the office. ‘We are also part of the ACSeS [Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors] Call Off scheme, which has negotiated special rates with a number of external firms,’ she added. National firm Weightmans’ head of local government, Graeme Creer, said his team has been advising many local authorities on restructuring. ‘Shared services make obvious economic sense and are one way to address the perennial problem of coping with the peaks and troughs of too much and too little work,’ he said. Creer added: ‘It is less obvious how to sustain a commercial focus and a responsive public service focus at the same time. Local government lawyers’ primary focus has never been to calculate profits over the next six months, but to achieve what the council wants to achieve on behalf of its clients – the general public.’ He anticipated a growing workload for local authority lawyers as grants to voluntary organisations such as citizens advice bureaux are cut, and as councils stop providing or reduce services to the public. He said: ‘Ideally, we would like to help protect local authorities from legal challenges, but ­decisions to cut services have been made so quickly that corners have been cut and mistakes made.’ Stephen Turner, immediate past chair of SLG, said that his major concern, which formed the ‘bedrock’ of his year in office, was the ‘potential attack on professional standards’ that these enforced cuts represented. He said: ‘The more local authorities are salami-slicing legal services, the closer we come to the day when an individual solicitor has to say no to his employer – or not comply with the ethical standards to which, as an officer of the court, he is bound. ‘The alternative is an appearance before the SRA [Solicitors Regulation Authority] and maybe the SDT [Solicitors ­Disciplinary Tribunal]. Or if the employer insists that the solicitor acts against the code of ethics, it could mean a claim for constructive dismissal.’ Turner predicted that the cuts in public services would lead to an increase in anti-social behaviour, the trade in counterfeit goods, and environmental and other offences. He said: ‘Council legal departments will not have the resources to police and prosecute these offences with the same rigour as before, which is another unforeseen consequence of the rush to make savings.’ Richard Clayton QC, of London chambers 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, warned delegates that local government solicitors must be mindful of their public equality duty, even in the face of cuts. He said: ‘The courts say you must do equality impact assessments, so you have to do them. There may be a political decision that leads the council in a certain direction, and there is nothing wrong with that – as long as you have been through the impact assessment process. But remember: very few equality cases brought by consumers have been lost. They are sensitive and judges are reluctant to rule against them.’ The consensus at the weekend was that a range of daunting challenges lies ahead for solicitors in local government. Or, in a more upbeat assessment, Essex County Council’s Philip Thomson said: ‘We are living in exciting times.’last_img

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