The London Boroughs of Harrow and Barnet have agreed to set up a shared legal practice from July in a move expected to save an estimated £4.4m over the next five years.
Harrow will host the expanded service under the deal, which will see Barnet’s legal staff – with the exception of its monitoring officer, Jeff Lustig – transfer under TUPE.
Three corporate lawyers will be made available back to Barnet to be based on site to support the monitoring officer and to provide corporate support to officers and members.
The shared legal service will be led by Hugh Peart, Director of Legal and Governance at Harrow, and managed on a day-to-day basis by Jessica Farmer. It is to offer legal services in all major areas of local government law as well as provide training for staff at both councils.
The core elements of the deal – according to a report prepared for Harrow's Cabinet – are:
- Barnet will commit to an agreed number of legal service hours for each year of the agreement;
- All legal work required by Barnet will be offered to the shared legal team other than in specific agreed areas, such as work already externally committed or work which is outsourced as part of the One Barnet programme;
- The following year’s budget hours requirement will be agreed three months prior to the commencement of any budget year;
- The agreement will run for five years;
- Harrow will be able to enter into agreements with other councils to provide legal services provided that the service to Barnet is not affected;
- Upon termination, the councils will share equally any financial liabilities which have arisen as a consequence of the agreement.
Initially legal staff will continue to work on 'their own council's projects' but gradually teams will take on worth for both.
The report to Harrow's Cabinet sets out the background to the deal, pointing out that its legal team was facing both an increased demand for its services, and an increased complexity in the issues it has to deal with.
A review carried out by a private practice firm in the summer of 2011 concluded that the legal practice was operating at similar efficiency levels to a commercial law firm, “making further efficiencies difficult to drive out”.
The report said the proposal would enable Harrow to “continue to benefit from at least the same volume of in-house legal service but with greater depth and resilience, at reduced unit cost”.
Advantages of the deal that have been identified include: a greater range and depth of legal expertise; more flexibility in response to council demands; reduced cost; improved career opportunities for staff; improved ability to recruit and retain the best staff; and greater resilience.
The two councils have also agreed how the deal will be adjusted should Barnet’s commitment to two major outsourcing projects affect the shared legal service.
Michael Lockwood, Chief Executive of Harrow Council, said: “To protect the front-line services our residents rely on, we are continually looking at options to reduce our back office costs and find savings that have no impact on residents.
“By linking our legal services with Barnet in an innovative partnership we will be able to deliver savings whilst increasing the range of legal expertise both councils can provide. It is an excellent example of how both councils are working together to manage the difficult situation we face.”
Nick Walkley, Chief Executive of Barnet Council, said: "This innovative move will bring real benefits to both councils, not only financially but through sharing our expertise and examples of best practice."
The proposal will be effected by a delegation by Barnet of its legal function to Harrow under s. 101 of the Local Government Act 1972 and relevant executive function regulations. An inter-authority agreement will set out the basis on which Harrow will exercise this delegation.
The Harrow-Barnet arrangement will be the second major shared legal service in the capital – the first saw the London Boroughs of Merton and Richmond combine their legal teams in October 2011.