Slide background

Sticking up for standards

The cutbacks in local government and the way they are being implemented by some councils present a potential threat to professional standards, Solicitors in Local Government chairman Steve Turner tells Philip Hoult.

It is clearly a challenging time for local government. So how do you see the state of play for lawyers in the sector?

There is undoubtedly an increasing workload at a time of diminishing resources. In my acceptance speech at the Weekend School in York last year, I put a marker down about the point being reached where that scenario starts to threaten professional standards. This issue remains a live one.

My principal concern – speaking generally and not personally – is that there still needs to be a recognition by employers that local authority solicitors are externally regulated and work to externally enforced professional standards. It would be not only remiss but an erroneous course were the employers to place their employed solicitors in a position where they could not comply with those standards. That threatens the professional integrity of the individual and is wrong, fundamentally wrong.

Article continues below...

Are there particular scenarios where you see these pressures being brought to bear? Or is it across the board? Are solicitors being pressurised to wave things through?

There has got to come a point where the solicitor says no – that he or she cannot personally do something in the way or with the resources provided by the employer because it would breach the professional standards in such a way that their integrity would be undermined.

It manifests itself in several ways and it varies enormously from council to council, depending on how authorities have approached their budgetary problems.

The council that purely ‘salami slices’ without thinking is going to run into more problems than the council that actually analyses the effect of what is proposed and is prepared to vary the thickness of the slice if you like, according to the need to ensure that the service is delivered to the proper standards.

I had hoped that the majority of councils would have carried out an analysis of what services they had to continue to deliver and what services they had a discretion to deliver, which is the root of all local authority law as you know.

A lot of authorities have done that, but then you also come up against the political difficulty thrown up by the fact that the majority of discretionary services are what one might call the ‘soft and cuddly’ ones. These are the services which the politicians like and do not want to see cut because they are the ones that get them the votes. That is always going to be a difficult circle to square.

But, to be brutally honest, there are some councils that haven’t even carried out that thought process. They have just salami sliced irrespective and that is worrying. For the individual solicitor, this means: ‘Am I going to have the facilities available to me to actually carry out the job I need to do in the way that it should be done’.

That is the biggest worry, and that is setting aside entirely personal concerns about job security and family. It is a difficult place to be.

This also raises the question of the extent to which lawyers have been included in the decision-making process recently.

I think they are definitely being moved further and further away from the top table. You have only got to look at the figures of the number of chief execs or even monitoring officers who have a legal background today, and compare it with five years ago. The figures are way down. And in some structures there are more directors being interposed between the chief executive and the head of legal, which is increasing the distance between them.

So what can local government lawyers do about this?

That is an interesting one. As you know, we have been talking for some time with both the Law Society and with the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS) about lobbying for the monitoring officer being a statutory requirement and for that requirement to have a legal qualification behind it. Personally that is a course of action I would still like to see happen.

When that idea was first mooted, there were some strong opinions on both sides.

There are indeed. When we ran the consultation last year with the Law Society, we were quite surprised by the diversity of opinion. My personal view is that it continues to be a desirable way to go, particularly with the still increasing layers of legal bureaucracy that they use in local government process.

One of the big drivers for it was the standards regime and the fact that there were going to be more, if you like, quasi-judicial decisions being made at local authority level. I took the view that the need for a lawyer at the very top table was going to be essential and I haven’t been moved from that view.

What do you make of the widespread and sometimes radical changes in the structures for delivering legal services? Are they an opportunity or a threat for local government lawyers?

Every authority is absolutely right to consider how it obtains legal services, and to talk to its neighbours – talk to whoever – and see what can be done and whether there is an alternative method of delivery. If that is better for the client, and for the collective client if there are shared services, then I think that should be the way to go.

I see it as an opportunity, provided it is not solely savings driven. The interest of the client has got to come first. There has got to be of significant benefit to the clients in determining the way that authorities should share resources or whatever they’re looking at. If that is there, then I see it as a distinct opportunity.

I have no particular view on which of the many models is best. The Lincolnshire Legal set up has worked pretty well so far, it looks to be doing the job, but there are other models – Kent and so on – and there are many variables. There should be those variables and I think the cloth should be tailored according to the client need.

There are other developments down the track as well. There will be alternative business structures from October 6 2011, and with the White Paper on public services, there is the prospect of mutuals and social enterprises. It is not inconceivable for local authority legal teams to set up a mutual I suppose.

Authorities are absolutely right to consider all possible options and I don’t see any of those options as a threat – they should be viewed as an opportunity, they should be considered.

What other themes have you sought to develop up in your year as chairman?

The issue of professional standards has been the bedrock of my year. The other main emphasis has been on knowledge and the increasing need to share that knowledge.

I have said frequently that SLG’s greatest asset is the collective knowledge of its membership. The more ways we can find of sharing that knowledge for the benefit of all in terms of not only knowledge but best practice, the better.

How can you facilitate that if people are losing colleagues because they have been made redundant and if work levels are, if anything, increasing rather than simply staying the same?

By providing the tools and mechanisms that make the sharing of that knowledge easier, without impinging on training or travel budgets. So for example, at our SIG (special interest group) conveners’ conference last month, we spent some time looking at the concept of a virtual special interest group as opposed to a special interest group that physically met.

With the technology available these days, anything is possible in that sense. There are some good ideas coming out of that which we are hoping will be put into practice in the relatively near future. But I don’t want to devalue face to face opportunities, either in terms of tuition or meetings or simply plain networking. That still has an important place, because it is always going to be the interactive situation which is the best method of sharing knowledge and experience. You can’t get emotion into an email, even with today’s technology. Equally we must embrace what is possible with technology as it continues to grow.

We already have two national specialist interest groups. The childcare lawyers’ group, which Graham Cole chairs, is a combination of the occasional physical meeting and a lot of IT work and it is very successful. We also have the fire lawyers’ network, which joined us the best part of two years ago.

We are on the point of creating a third in that we have been in discussions and have come to an agreement in principle with lawyers who work for health trusts and health authorities. We are looking to bring them under our umbrella in terms of membership of the website and the facilities that go with that.

Do you think there is scope for a single organisation representing lawyers across the public sector?

There is a significant argument for a single voice but how wide an area that single voice should cover is open to debate. We have been in preliminary talks with ACSeS about not a merger or a takeover but the formation of something new to create a single voice for solicitors in local government. Those talks are ongoing.

We are somewhere close to an agreement in principle and if anything comes of that, then changes would be likely to be put to the 2012 AGM, for implementation either in the latter part of that year or 2013. There is a timescale and it is a realistic one.

The difficulty that was perceived at the start – about ACSeS’ non-lawyer membership – is not actually there. Lawyers now make up in excess of 95% of its membership. We are looking forward to those continued discussions and to see where we get to. But I do emphasise it would be something new we would be creating – it is not us following ACSeS or the other way round.  We are looking for that single voice that is fully representational of all solicitors in local government.

What else is SLG doing to support local government lawyers, either generally or in their career development?

Career development is an interesting area. We have followed the Law Society lead and turned our trainee and newly qualified SIGs and groups into a junior lawyer division. It varies from branch to branch in ratio to the distribution of trainees, but we have got about half a dozen active JLD Sigs and they are led nationally by three representatives on the National Executive Committee.

They are active in career development, in terms of providing information to trainees and getting involved in career fairs. That is working well and there are strong linkages to the JLD division of the Law Society as well.

How is the relationship with the Law Society? It is fair to say that there have been tensions at some stages in the past.

Those relationships have continued to improve. It has not been tense for probably three or more years now as the Law Society has come to recognise one, the significant proportion of their membership that works in local government and two, the fact that we actually do things in a proper way. I think the Law Society respects and admires almost the way – of all the recognised groups – we provide for our membership and the things we do to represent our membership. You never forget at the end of the day that all our members are members of the Law Society anyway.

So why shouldn’t the relationship be a good one? Gone are the days that the Law Society appeared, on its public face at any rate, to exist solely for private practice.

Tell us about your career so far. How did you end up becoming a local government lawyer?

If you had asked me that question when I was at school, I would have laughed at you. I never considered law as a career and indeed did not get into law at all until I was about 24.

I fully intended when I was at school to have a flying career in the Air Force and my education was tailored towards that, with an emphasis on science. I did everything right to get into the Air Force apart from the fact that I had hay fever and they wouldn’t let me in. They wouldn’t even give me a ground job such as air traffic control, which I was really annoyed about.

I fell back on my second string, science, and ended up working for the local health authority doing histopathology and cytology in the labs for a few years. Then I had a dabble in retail management before I was asked completely out of the blue – by a territorial army contact – if I had ever considered training as a legal executive. I said, what’s a legal executive? Because I didn’t know.

My contact offered me a job in his firm, almost as an outdoor clerk, and that was the start of it. That firm sponsored me through a two-year legal executive associateship and a five-year part-time law degree (at Hull University). I decided to take a year out to do the Law Society Finals. I was exempt from articles – because by that time I had been admitted as a Fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives – and I was admitted to the Roll in December 1986.

It had always been my intention to go back to the firm that had sponsored my education, and we got into negotiations. Amazingly we couldn’t come to terms. They had paid me peanuts plus a little bit for the previous eight years and obviously paid for my legal education, which was extremely good of them, but I’m afraid I wanted considerably more than they were prepared to offer when I came back qualified.

So I took a rather brave step and went on the job market in the run up to finals. With the help of a headhunting firm in Leeds, I got over more than 20 requests for interview. I selected four and took a job at Langleys in Lincoln.

I became a salaried partner after two years and stayed at the firm for just over six years. Langleys then amalgamated with another Lincoln firm, but by that time the partnership pie became too small for any further equity partners to be made up in the foreseeable future. So I came back to Hull and worked with a firm here for two years.

It was in 1994 that I joined Humberside County Council, as it then was, working in Beverley where I had grown up and gone to school. But Humberside was disbanded two years later in 1996, when the four unitaries – East Riding, Hull, North East Lincolnshire and North Lincolnshire – were formed. I went to North Lincolnshire in Scunthorpe and I was there for seven and a half years, before coming to Hull City Council in December 2003.

I have had a mixed practice in local government. At Humberside I was primarily a contracts lawyer and a commercial litigator – indeed for something like 14 months of the two and a half years I was there I handled one piece of major litigation and nothing else, which was a very interesting experience. It was a massive case involving a claim against the council arising out of a CCT contract. It was a claim by the successful contractor, who claimed there had been misinformation under TUPE. The case ended up as a three-week trial at the Royal Courts in London. We carved it at the end – I reckon I saved the council £10m in the end on that carving, but there we go!

At North Lincs I again did a mixture – some environmental work, some regulatory prosecution, some employment, but principally procurement. Initially at Hull I continued what I had been doing at North Lincs, but from 2005 onwards I concentrated mostly on the top end of regulatory prosecution, heavy trading standards stuff and environmental health, food safety, that sort of thing. That occupies about 50% of my time while the other 50% is pure licensing. Hull has a very big night-time economy and it is also one of the proposed locations for one of the 16 large casinos. It’s a very full brief and thoroughly enjoyable.

I attended my first Weekend School when I was at Humberside and got actively involved on the branch side of SLG around 1999/2000. I became branch rep for Yorkshire and the Humber on the National Executive Committee before becoming National Knowledge Coordinator and then Deputy Vice-Chair three years ago. And here we are.

Philip Hoult is editor of Local Government Lawyer.


Sponsored Editorial

Slide background