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No recession for m’learned friends

No recession for m’learned friends

🕔06.Nov 2012

It may be the toughest times for most businesses in living memory, but there is seemingly no stopping the legal profession from continuing to profit at the expense of the public purse.

Birmingham City Council has spent £60 million on hiring solicitors, barristers and running its own legal services team in just three years, it has been revealed.

Costs have been pushed up by litigation over hundreds of equal pay cases involving former council workers, as well as a steady increase in the number of child care court proceedings.

Barristers based in London are regularly called in to provide expert, but expensive, advice when the council decides it does not have sufficient expertise in-house.

Last year the bill for counsel’s advice and representation topped £2.7 million, with £1.9 million of that going to chambers in London.

A report drawn up for a scrutiny committee sets out the pressures facing the council over litigation, and also shows that attempts to trim the bill are proving successful.

In 2009-10, the total cost of legal services was £22.8 million, including £3.1 million for counsel’s fees. The council paid out £3 million in costs and compensation.

In 2010-11, the legal services bill was £20.8 million, which included £2.3 million on counsel’s fees and £3.6 million on costs and compensation.

In 2011-12, the total cost of council legal services fell to £17 million, including £2.5 million on counsel’s fees and £2.8 million for costs and compensation.

The total bill is estimated to reduce to £14 million in 2012-13 as the council seeks to cut costs wherever possible.

The number of court hearings involving care proceedings for children’s social services is increasing. Teams of council lawyers handle 2,500 cases a year. About 10 per cent of the cases involve counsel representation at a cost of £700,000 a year.

Birmingham City Council’s Legal Services Department has an in-house staffing team of 235. Director David Tatlow says there is often no alternative but to hire London-based barristers and specialist solicitors, but he insists the local authority gets value for money.

Mr Tatlow said: “A significant proportion of counsel spend was attributable to work on the complex issue of equal pay where it has been necessary due to the technical nature of the litigation for the instruction of highly experienced London counsel.

“The legal fees of London counsel have been carefully negotiated and preferential rates have been agreed below what one might consider as market expectation.

“As part of the drive to reduce the overall cost of legal services to the council, counsel spend has reduced year on year. Additionally, spend on external law firms has also significantly reduced over the same period.

“There is a huge variety of work within the Legal Services Office. A substantial part of this is undertaken by professional lawyers without the need to refer to counsel or external law firms for additional legal input.

“However, there are occasions where due to the complex or uncertain interpretation of the legal position it is necessary to instruct external law firms or counsel for technical legal advice and representation at court and tribunal hearings.”

 

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