Councils are boosting capacity in their legal departments following previous cuts as they face challenges arising from new models of service delivery, commercialisation and pressures in adult and children’s social care, LGC research can reveal.
six per cent
Figures gathered from 100 upper tier councils following a freedom of information request show a 6% rise overall in legal department staff, including lawyers and support workers, between 2015-16 and 2017-18.
A total of 49 councils increased legal department capacity, with 31 boosting staff numbers by 10% or more.
There were 17 councils which maintained the same numbers over the period and 35 which reduced capacity.
Suki Binjal, president of Lawyers in Local Government, told LGC many councils have realised they had cut legal departments too severely in previous years, with some moving to the “bare minimum”. She said they were now recruiting to bolster organisational resilience and meet the challenges of new ways of delivering services.
Previous cuts to numbers meant some councils lost the legal expertise and skills that come with long-term experience of local government, she added, particularly in relation to working with politicians.
Ms Binjal said while there has been a shortage of lawyers with the “skills and experience a chief executive is looking for”, councils are now seeking to offer better opportunities for career development to attract candidates.
Roles should be created that recognise legal expertise and skills – and pay the right salary to compete with the private sector
Suki Binjal, Lawyers in Local Government
“There has to be a clear line of succession”, she said. “[Candidates] must be able to see if they join an authority they could be a director in eight years. “Roles should be created that recognise legal expertise and skills – and pay the right salary to compete with the private sector.”
Ms Binjal said changes in the way councils are operating make it vital that lawyers’ expertise includes the ability to be strategic in approach.
She added an increase in council-owned housing or leisure companies, partnership work with the private sector, setting up trusts to deliver children’s social care services and regeneration projects meant local authorities are working in areas of increased risk and with more complex central governance frameworks.
“It is important for lawyers to support and assist the local authority to create models of delivery with the right lines of accountability, with a clear transparent line of sight of who is responsible,” Ms Binjal said.
She described having the required legal expertise in-house as “crucial” because individual places have their own challenges and complexities.
Croydon LBC had the biggest percentage increase nationally in the overall size of the workforce in its legal department after nearly quadrupling staff from 10 in 2015-16 to 38 in 2017-18.
This was due to the council deciding in 2016 to take most of its outsourced legal services back inhouse.
Merton LBC had the second highest increase in legal depart-ment staff over the period, with the number of staff rising from 50 to 103. This increase was due to Merton hosting the South London Legal Partnership which includes Kingston upon Thames RBC, Richmond upon Thames LBC and Wandsworth LBC, which joined in 2017.
A spokesperson for Cheshire East Council, which almost doubled the size of its department over the period – from 19 to 28 staff – said this was due to a number of factors, particularly increased demand for adult and children’s social care and special educational needs and disability support. Major schemes to boost economic growth and infrastructure also placed further demand on legal services, they said.
Staff in Dorset CC’s legal department increased from 34 to 45 (a 32% hike) between 2015-16 and 2017-18. Jonathan Mair was Dorset CC director for organisational development and is now corporate director, legal and demo-cratic services, and monitoring officer at the new Dorset Council, which is set to launch in April as part of the reorganisation of the county.
He told LGC Dorset CC had restruc-tured its legal services following a review in 2017, which saw his department take on responsibility for human resources and governance and assurance, while the record management unit also moved over.
Mr Mair said Dorset’s legal services had been based on a structure that was “right for the county council many years ago” and the council moved to ensure ser-vices could meet new challenges.
He said: “What was clear was that we needed to put some more capacity in children’s services as that was one of the areas with a significant increase in demand around looked after children.
“There was also a significant increase in adult services as well with an increased focus on deprivation of liberty standards. Councils are now attaching the same significance to the protection of vulnerable adults as they do to vulnerable children.”
Mr Mair is on Dorset’s corporate leadership team. However, this is not always the case for monitoring officers. LLG has raised concerns about the downgrading of directors of law and monitoring officers from first-tier management to second or third tier in “numerous authorities”.
Councils are now attaching the same significance to the protection of vulnerable adults as they do to vulnerable children
Jonathan Mair, Dorset Council
Research by LGC last year into council senior leadership teams found monitoring officers were paid significantly less on average than other statutory roles, such as directors of children’s services, suggesting they may not always be at the top table. The average salary for a monitoring officer was just under £96,000, compared to just under £115,000 for a section 151 officer and around £125,000 for directors of adults and children’s services.
Ms Binjal admitted the sector has “a way to go” before most councils have lawyers working strategically at the top management level.
Colin Murray, commercial and public sector partner at the law firm DWF, told LGC he was a “strong advocate” of councils having monitoring officers at the top level of senior management.
He said his company largely advises councils on “big ticket” projects such as regeneration schemes, particularly if these involve new or innovative legal structures.
“The monitoring officer is the ultimate legal gatekeeper and if you lose that advice and knowledge from the top table then authorities can lose their way.”
LGC also asked councils for the total number of qualified lawyers and legal executives in their legal departments in 2018. Manchester City Council had by far the largest number with 113 in a department of 200 staff.
Fiona Ledden, city solicitor for Manchester, said this capacity was due to providing shared legal services for other councils and other external clients. Birmingham City Council employed the second highest number of lawyers with 75 in a department with a total workforce of 192.
Sunderland City Council had the biggest drop in staffing levels with a 38% decrease over the period. A Sunderland spokesperson said this was due to staff transferring to the Together for Children trust in 2017.
Bath & North East Somerset Council had the next largest decrease of 37% followed by North Somerset Council with 33%. Neither council responded to a request for comment.
croydon view from south new august 2018
Most of Croydon’s legal services, categorised as ‘commercial’, ‘litigation’, ‘housing property and conveyancing’ and ‘sundry debts’, were until 2017 provided through a solicitors framework involving seven firms.
In 2016, the council decided to bring most of these services back in house, with a savings target of at least 10% of external legal costs.
A report to Croydon’s cabinet said there was a “corporate need for high quality, cost-effective legal services which respond to the financial challenges faced by the council and align with the council’s evolving needs”.
The report added there was also a need to ensure “access to skilled, pragmatic and proactive legal support in an environment where service transformation, innovative projects, evolving laws and an increased appetite to challenge local authority decisions maintain upward pressure on demand”.
While some councils have opted to share legal services, the report said the alternative model “was neither feasible nor warranted”.
This was because legal services were said to be “highly cost efficient” and a new arrangement “might be at Croydon’s expense”.
Simon Hall (Lab), Croydon’s cabinet member for finance and resources, said the move in-house had improved services and enabled the council to focus on staff development, with better opportunities for trainee solicitors.
Manchester City Council
manchester shutterstock 139064441
Manchester City Council employed 113 lawyers and staff with a legal qualification in 2018 out of a department of 200, the largest number nationally.
Fiona Ledden, city solicitor for the council, said this is because Manchester provides legal services to other councils and external clients to generate income.
This includes supplying shared legal services for Salford City Council and children’s and adults’ legal services for Rochdale MBC, with staff from both councils transferring to Manchester in recent years.
Manchester also provides legal support to a range of external clients including Greater Manchester CA, other local authorities and Manchester and Salford schools.
Ms Ledden added: “In addition, the scale and complexity of the work we support around development in a fast-growing city region and in support of devolution, for example around Greater Manchester’s pioneering health and social care integration arrangements, requires both capacity and expertise.
“We have consciously sought over the years to preserve in-house expertise where others have outsourced and believe that keeping the amount of work that needs to be externalised to an absolute minimum is the most efficient and cost-effective approach.”