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ACSeS panel identifies new models for local authority legal departments

The Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors (ACSeS) has urged local authority legal departments to make “a step change in service quality outcomes, economy, efficiency and effectiveness” to meet the demands of the so-called age of austerity.

The call was made after a meeting earlier this month of senior local government and private sector lawyers to consider potential models of delivery of legal services going forwards.

ACSeS president Mirza Ahmad, who convened the meeting, has identified seven potential models for legal services going forwards. These range from traditional in-house arrangements at one end of the spectrum to externalisation of in-house services to the private sector with a retained small strategic core and intelligent client function at the other.

He said the models could be applied to entire legal or support service teams or parts of them, such as employment, litigation, HR, finance, property and planning.

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These could be delivered through a number of different legal structures, including:

  • Companies limited by guarantee
  • Limited liability partnerships
  • Charities
  • Unincorporated associations, or
  • Community interest companies.

Some legal or support services teams could consider a management buy-out “subject to consideration of appropriate legal and governance implications”, it was suggested.

The association said each authority would have to make its own strategic evaluation “of where it currently is and where it needs to be”. But it insisted that a step change in performance was key.

Ahmad said: “ACSeS recognises that, in this age of austerity, there has to be a mindset change and any service delivery model must generate efficiencies and effectiveness, including substantial cost reductions.

“Each of the seven models put forward for discussion will require different skills and abilities from the individuals involved. Leadership will, undoubtedly, play an important part in providing that strategic intent and direction to the organisations.”

ACSeS plans to start a dialogue on the issue with government departments, professional associations such as SOLACE and CIPFA, and other stakeholders.

The ACSeS president said that “for his part”, he could clearly see the UK local government legal services landscape changing over the next decade into a regional structure based around six regional centres of legal excellence. “Such a model could also develop, in time, to incorporate the Scottish and Northern Ireland dimensions and, perhaps, even lead the world in terms of the provision of local government legal services.”

A discussion paper drawn up after the meeting – which was held under Chatham House rules – acknowledged that there would be major issues with regard to employment of staff, including the potential for secondment and TUPE transfers, with many of the seven different operating models. It added: “Moving in between or from different models will also, undoubtedly, entail a review of staffing structures, competence, systems and processes.”

But the paper said: “The predominant objective must, however, be one of improving the quality of service provision to local government and the public sector, as a whole, with appropriate leadership/managerial cultural change and improvements in productivity, efficiency and effectiveness of outcomes.”

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Leadership, management and career opportunities for staff were identified as key factors to be considered, along with effective training and development for lawyers and support staff. Insurance and pension provisions would also need addressing.

The discussion paper also suggested that regional centres of excellence could be based around Birmingham (for the Midlands region), Kent (Southern Eastern region), Essex (Eastern region), Bristol (South West region), Cardiff (Wales) and Leeds (North West/North East regions).

The meeting’s attendees were:

  • Dr Ahmad
  • Geoff Wild, director of law and governance at Kent County Council
  • Philip Thomson, County Solicitor at Essex County Council
  • Mark Hynes, Director of Legal and Democratic Services at the London Borough of Lambeth
  • Deborah Collins, Strategic Director of Communities at the London Borough of Southwark
  • Beth Evans, partner at Bevan Brittan
  • Mark Greenburgh, partner at Wragge & Co
  • Tony Kilner, Policy and Development Officer at ACSeS

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