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FRONT LINE FIRST-LAW

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Considering the future for council lawyers ...
Considering the future for council lawyers
One prediction which is sure to be right, is that almost all predictions will be wrong. Nonetheless, trying to guess what lies ahead is sometimes worthwhile.
One significant development is the increasing number of legal firms dealing in council law. They tend to be the larger partnerships, concentrating on complex, one-off issues like private finance initiatives or housing transfers.
The government has suggested that smaller councils should share services such as computing, accountancy and law, and fund them jointly. The internet will make it easier to do this.
It seems likely the days of small legal departments, tackling every area of law, are numbered. In the next five years or so, we may see groups of legal staff - private practice or council employed - concentrating on particular areas. Such units would carry out conveyancing, social services or planning work for several councils.
If both complex matters and more routine work are dealt with by specialist contractors outside the council, this will mean the end of the traditional council secretary's department. In many councils, the client/contractor split has already occurred as a result of competitive tendering. Legal departments are stand-alone.
So there will be three possible roles for the local government lawyer. The first will be to advise on corporate legal issues and, acting as a client, passing instructions to the contractor. The second will focus on constitutional matters, ethics and conduct, probably as monitoring officer. The third, maybe physically located outside the council, will be as legal contractor.
Many would consider the first two roles can be combined and claim the monitoring officer can only operate properly when involved in decision making at the centre. But there are suggestions the post of monitoring officer will become detached from the day-to-day workings of the council and become part of the machinery of the new ethical framework.
What of the nature of legal work? There will be less need for legal advice on matters of capacity as the new powers of well-being and provisions to promote partnerships make the ultra vires doctrine less relevant. There will probably be more emphasis on human rights, civil liberties, and access to information issues and, in an increasingly litigious society, a growth in negligence claims funded through conditional fee agreements.
Riddell Graham
Director of legal services, Crewe & Nantwich BC
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