Commentary into exclusive LGC research into the viewpoint of lawyers
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Like so many other parts of local government, council legal teams have been heavily hit by austerity.
As access to services has fallen in line with dwindling budgets, the scope for legal challenge from those who relied on them has increased. At the same time, councils’ legal teams have not escaped both reductions in resources and the pressure to find alternative sources of income that has affected other council departments.
This is demonstrated by LGC’s latest research. Almost 300 individuals, from monitoring officers to paralegals, responded to LGC’s survey which we undertook in association with Lawyers in Local Government.
They identified adult social care as the service area in which they were most concerned about the impact of legal challenges. The impact of such challenges is illustrated by the 2014 ruling against Cheshire West & Chester Council which forced all councils to rethink their approach to deprivation of liberty and saw a huge spike in applications. At the time it was believed it could carry up to a £1.6bn price tag for councils.
In particular, our research shows legal staff are concerned service users could challenge their council in the courts over its assessment of eligibility for care. They had similar fears around housing, which they cited as the second riskiest area. As the housing shortage becomes increasingly acute, councils become more vulnerable to challenges over their assessment of peoples’ housing need. In inner-city areas especially, councils must increasingly use temporary accommodation or housing outside their own areas to meet need, as separate LGC research has shown. This too is a source of multiplying legal complaints.
It’s not all bad news. Legal services have been seen as ripe for sharing and commericalisation – often seen as one of the few responses to austerity – and our survey found widespread belief that both models have been beneficial to their council. However, many reported unmanageable workloads, culture clashes with partner authorities, and confusing and restrictive regulation had marred their experience of sharing or selling legal services.
Worryingly, the survey also uncovered anxiety amongst legal teams that the abolition of the Standards Board for England had left them without the tools they need to tackle councillor misconduct.
While one senior monitoring officer reports finding it easier to nip low-level issues in the bud, the concern is that for serious misdemeanours they now have very few options at their disposal.
This is a view shared by council chief executives. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers highlights the erosion of protections for statutory officers, plus the decline of employment rights such as the cap on exit payments, has left chiefs in a weak position when it comes to challenging poor behaviour among politicians.
This finding should concern officers and elected members alike. As the Grenfell Tower disaster has shown, trust in democratically elected representatives can collapse easily; poor behaviour by the few risks having a disproportionate impact on the reputation of the many.