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Ten Welsh councils pursue shared legal service based on formal collaboration

A group of ten councils in South East and Mid Wales are poised to give the green light to the phased implementation of a shared legal service based on formal collaboration and the establishment of centres of excellence.

The ten local authorities participating in the proposed service are:

  • Blaenau Gwent;
  • Caerphilly;
  • Cardiff;
  • Powys;
  • Merthyr Tydfil;
  • Vale of Glamorgan;
  • Rhondda Cynon Taf;
  • Monmouthshire;
  • Torfaen; and
  • Newport City.

The creation of a single combined legal team, hosted by a single authority or established as an arm’s length company, has been ruled out on the basis that there were insufficient efficiency savings to justify the cost implications.

A strategic three-year plan for the provision of legal services across the region is due to be completed by the end of September.

A memorandum of understanding has meanwhile been signed to establish reciprocal arrangements for inter-authority working and co-operation, with fixed fees for work carried out on behalf of other councils. This is expected to reduce the dependency on external lawyers at times of reduced capacity or peaks in workload.

The councils have also identified two pilot areas for the establishment of shared services – prosecutions work and insurance claims.

A ‘virtual’ team – initially hosted by one of the authorities within the sub regional groups – will be responsible for co-ordinating the work of the combined teams. Staff will continue to be employed by their current authorities.

The special interest group for prosecutions has already met on a number of occations and is in the process of establishing its 'virtual' team.

It is envisaged that in the longer term this could develop into a ‘centre of excellence’ for this particular work, based within one authority. 

If successful, these pilots are expected to provide a framework for rolling the approach out to other parts of the legal service.

Other joint service initiatives include: sharing of knowledge and pooling of resources through special interest groups; procurement of on-line library and research materials; and the commissioning of shared training and staff development.

A brief has been drawn up for the creation of an interactive shared website for the collaboration. This aspect of the project is with IT for consideration of issues such as the mechanics of setting it up, providing estimated costs for implementation and so on.

Benefits identified from the shared legal service were improved service resilience and increased development opportunities for staff.

The authorities employ 236 FTE staff between them and have a combined legal spend of £16.6m.

An earlier review had originally drawn up a shortlist of five options for shared legal services, These were:

  1. Base case – the do nothing or status quo;
  2. Formal collaboration with phased implementation;
  3. Formal collaboration with single implementation;
  4. Single legal service (multi-site with management board) with phased implementation;
  5. Single legal service (multi-site with management board) with single implementation.

The long list also included the establishment of a separate legal entity, a joint venture with the private sector, and a private client + intelligent client model.

An outline business case concluded in April 2013 that the best option was a formal collaboration implemented on a ‘phased basis’.

A number of future project opportunities were identified:

  • A procurement framework for externalised work: a number of authorities in the region are using a contract set up for the South West Wales region. This is due to expire in April 2014;
  • Research into extranet provision/development of a dedicated website;
  • Further development of special interest groups;
  • Software appraisal: case management, time management and court bundling.

The outline business case suggested that the following areas were seen as within the scope of the project: general legal advice; adult social care; childcare, criminal & civil litigation; education; employment; environment; private housing function/homelessness; highways, commons & rights of way; planning; procurement & contracts; property; legal advice/information law, admin/core support.

However, a number of areas would be ‘out of scope’ and continue to be provided ‘in-house’, by each local authority. These include: corporate governance; public housing; land charges; democratic services; monitoring officer; complaints; admin – freedom of information; admin – Data Protection Act requests.

The project board for the shared legal service comprises the chief legal officers from the authorities, a full-time project manager funding through a grant from the Welsh Local Government Association and the WLGA’s regional co-ordinator for South East Wales.

Half of the authorities have given formal approval of the outline business case, with the rest expected to follow suit now the summer recess is over.