The Audit Commission inspection team gave the service two stars because it has achieved a range of improvements in the last 18 months, legal staff were 'professional and approachable' and legal advice was timely and in clearly understandable language.
Susan Fenwick, commissioning inspector, Central Region Best Value Inspection Service, said:
'Birmingham is providing a good, comprehensive legal service with high customer satisfaction levels. However, they are not clear about the role legal services should play corporately nor have they challenged the competitiveness of the service.'
- Above average success in employment tribunal cases at below average costs and improvements to the prosecutions record.
- A high level of customer satisfaction, with external lawyers saying that the council's legal services department 'enjoys an enviable reputation for having high levels of skill and professionalism', all at below average cost per head of population.
- A good range of advice notes on legislation and clear advice for members on modernisation issues. There is also a solicitor on-call during out-of-office-hours.
However, inspectors also found weaknesses:
- There are no procedures and protocols for dealing with anti-social behaviour (particularly ASBOs) and staff said they were unclear as to what was the most appropriate approach.
- There is no comprehensive case management system and management information does not yet meet customers' requirements.
- Some of the level of work undertaken by senior staff (such as photocopying and filing) is an inappropriate use of resources and skills.
To help the service improve, inspectors made a number of recommendations, including:
- Clearly identify and use the full range of legal options to address anti-social behaviour.
- Identify what role legal services should play in delivering the corporate objectives.
- Review staffing levels to ensure that staff are being used effectively.
Legal services is estimated to cost Birmingham City Council£7.5m. The in-house team delivers£5.39m and has 150 full-time equivalent staff. A further£2.1m is done on behalf of the council by external law firms. Legal services undertakes over 300 different types of legal activities including a range of litigation, social services work, a wide range of work on public law & property and a number of the council's ongoing initiatives.
A statement from Birmingham City Council follows.
'We welcome the Audit Commission's report which concludes that the legal
services office offers a very professional cost-effective, comprehensive legal
service to the city council, with a high level of client/customer
satisfaction. We will build on the successes, as well as addressing those areas
of perceived weakness identified by the inspectors for the city council. In
fact, we have already taken a number of their recommendations on board.
'It should be noted, however, that the chief legal officer, Mirza Ahmad, does not
accept all aspects of their report, parts of which he finds are materially
flawed and indicative of dificiencies in the inspection regime applicable to
local government (see LGCnetfor his comments).'